Somewhere in a California prison this afternoon, a wealthy Cypress man convicted of murdering his wife is probably shouting with joy. A state court of appeal based in Santa Ana has overturned the 2007 jury conviction and 25 years to life sentence for liquor store-owner Marvin V. Smith. Law enforcement officers believe Smith killed his wife and staged the crime scene to look like a burglary gone terribly wrong. But according to a three-justice panel, Superior Court Judge Dan McNerney made prejudicial errors that violated Smith's right to a fair trial.
"On appeal, Smith asserts several claims of evidentiary and instructional error," wrote Acting Presiding Justice William F. Rylaarsdam. "We agree. . . "
The appellate panel determined that McNerney should not have allowed prosecutor Michael F. Murray to tell jurors in his closing argument that they could convict Smith of murder whether they thought he did the killing himself or aided and abetted the killer. McNerney compounded the mistake by giving jurors an instruction on aiding and abetting for their deliberations, according to the justices.
"The request for instruction on aiding and abetting came after the close of evidence because [Murray] was concerned the strength of the defense evidence might engender a reasonable doubt as to this theory in the minds of some jurors," Rylaarsdam speculated.
The justices also determined that jurors had serious doubts about Murray's case because of a request they made review defense evidence that Smith had been physically incapable of committing the murder because he'd undergone shoulder surgery weeks prior to the crime.
Having covered all phases of this trial, I can report that Murray never appeared worried about the strength of his evidence and that numerous jurors told me that they believe Smith had acted alone. It's odd to me that in slamming Murray and McNerney on the aiding and abetting issue, the justices failed to mention in their discussion that it was Smith's defense lawyer, Jennifer L. Keller, who first raised the topic in her closing argument. And it was Keller who strenuously suggested during the trial that another man, one of Smith's employees, had been the actual killer.
Nonetheless, the court of appeal says Smith is entitled to a new trial.
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Dave Brent, head of the homicide prosecution unit for the DA's office, told me this afternoon that the office will review the appellate opinion in conjunction with the attorney general's office to determine if the ruling merits an appeal to the California Supreme Court.
According to law enforcement, Smith brutally murdered his wife Minnie on December 15, 2005 with a fireplace log roller, left her corpse in a degrading nude position and staged the crime scene to suggest a burglary gone wrong. Smith--who was having multiple sexual affairs at the time--gave inconsistent statements to police, had a history of violence and gained several million dollars from his wife's demise. It didn't help that $200,000 worth of jewels he claimed the burglar/killer had stolen were eventually recovered in the trunk of a Mercedes Smith keep in a Los Angeles garage. The jewelry was stored in a box that had been wrapped with the same type of duct tape the killer had used to bind his victim's wrists.
Keller, who refused to take my call this afternoon, had argued that Smith wasn't home during the killing and had no motive to want his wife of 28 years dead because he loved her.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly