In a rare move, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has sided with a Los Angeles-based federal judge and against the California Supreme Court to rule that a wealthy Orange County defendant convicted of savagely murdering his wife did not receive a fair trial in 2007.
U.S. District Court Judge Otis D. Wright II declared last year that a veteran OC prosecutor and judge violated Marvin Vernis Smith's constitutional due-process rights, and a three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit this week agreed.
The federal appellate panel ordered Smith, 75, a Cypress resident who owned a Los Angeles liquor store, released from Lancaster State Prison or re-charged within 90 days.
Someone murdered Smith's wife, Minnie--a beloved, sweet woman--in the couple's bedroom in December 2005. As a result, Smith--a trash-talking serial philanderer who had a history of violence against his church-loving spouse--gained full control of the couple's $5 million fortune. The defendant claimed he came home to discover his wife's corpse.
But a Cypress police detective and Murray poked numerous glaring holes in Smith's story. For example, Smith implied the killer must have broken into a closet floor safe and stolen jewelry worth more than $244,000. Police eventually found the missing jewelry in the trunk of one of Smith's secondary vehicles, which he kept in LA.
Law enforcement also uncovered this eyebrow-raising fact: The missing jewelry found in Smith's vehicle was wrapped with the same spool of Massachusetts-produced duct tape the killer used to tied the victim's ankles together.
The crux of the appellate controversy was a move by prosecutor Michael F. Murray, whose case focused on the defendant as the actual killer but who, after the close of the evidence portion of the trial, asked Superior Court Judge Daniel Barrett McNerney to give jurors an instruction they could also convict Smith under an aiding-and-abetting theory.
Jennifer Keller and Kay Rackauckas, Smith's high-priced defense lawyers who argued someone other than their client must have killed the woman, vehemently opposed the instruction as unfair, but McNerney granted Murray's request.
"The prosecution's conduct affirmatively led Smith to believe it would not rely on an aiding-and-abetting liability theory," wrote the Ninth Circuit panel of judges Sidney R. Thomas, Andrew D. Hurwitz and Ralph R. Beistline. "Thus, the aiding-and-abetting jury instruction violated Smith's fundamental right to receive notice of the nature of the charges against him and have a meaningful opportunity to prepare a defense. Given the closely balanced evidence, we cannot say that the trial court's error was harmless."
I covered every moment of the battle in court, as well as interviewed jurors after the trial, and I can't agree with the federal judges that Keller's defense evidence was on par with Murray's case.
But the Ninth Circuit--relying on transcripts--applauded Wright's equally remote conclusion of "grave doubts about the validity of the jury's verdict."
The use of the word "grave" is especially absurd.
Since Murray, a ranking member of the DA's elite homicide unit, won a conviction, the case has been on a wild legal roller coaster. State appellate-court justices originally ruled Smith's trial wasn't fair on the aiding-and-abetting issue. The state Supreme Court then vacated that opinion. A second state appellate ruling asserted that Smith suffered no prejudicial error and his defense team did, in fact, have adequate notice of the aiding-and-abetting theory. Next came Wright's contradictory ruling and, lastly, the Ninth Circuit's stance.
DA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder said this morning that prosecutors will be asking California Attorney General Kamala Harris to appeal the Ninth Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If the DA's office isn't successful going that route, they don't plan to quit.
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"We believe that the defendant is factually guilty and that an innocent woman was viciously murdered," said Schroeder. "We intend to try the case again and make sure that justice is done for Minnie."