Accused of hiring hit men to murder her husband while she shopped at Walmart and Burger King for a fake alibi, Sandra Jessee declined to take the witness stand in her first trial and saw herself and co-defendant, Thomas Aehlert, come within one vote of spending the rest of their lives in a California prison.
Since that 2009 Orange County hung jury trial, Aehlert confessed the evil conspiracy against his fun-loving stepfather, Jack Jessee of Placentia, and in the second, ongoing trial testified against his own mother.
This afternoon, Sandra Jessee decided to take the witness stand.
It wasn't entirely a surprise. The government's case is strong. The move was definitely a risky gamble but her freedom is at stake.
Under questioning by take-no-prisoner defense attorney Derek Bercher, Jessee nervously assured jurors that she loved her husband, cared for him in sickness, did everything she could to nurse him back to health and anxiously anticipated spending their "Cadillac time," or retirement years, together.
"Whatever he wanted or needed, he was going to get it," she told jurors.
Several members of the victim's family slowly nodded their heads in disgust by the line. They believe Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) evidence shows that the August 1998 murder took months, if not longer, to plan and its motive was purely financial. Indeed, three of the accused killers partied with the unwitting victim--drank his booze, smoked his pot, swam in his pool and ate his food--just weeks before the murder, according to prosecutor Michael F. Murray.
But the majority of the defendant's testimony concerned her alleged deep commitment to her husband and the fabulous times they enjoyed together as a couple.
"It was love at first sight," she testified about their 1980 introduction. "I knew he was the one . . . I was always in love with him . . . [Jack's marriage proposal meant] God answered my prayers."
In the weeks before the murder, her husband had critical colon surgery and she described a scene of self-sacrificing affection in his hospital room.
"I'm not a religious person, but I prayed," she said, weeping. "I didn't want to lose him. I slept right there on the floor next to his bed."
The inference is obvious: why would a woman take care of a spouse she planned to murder?
Bercher, who this morning complained about my coverage of the case and asked Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler to remind the jury not to read news reports, spent about 2.5 hours tossing his client softball questions.
At various times, a sad-faced Jessee described herself as a wonderful if penny pinching granny, who enjoyed bowling but not as much as a daily dose of pot or periodic trips to casinos for video poker.
She also took subtle shots at her dead husband, casting him as loving but lazy and superficial.
Jessee also directly confronted lingering, damaging facts introduced in both trials by the government.
OCSD homicide investigators Brian Sutton and Tom Dove found phone evidence that Jessee repeatedly called confessed hit man Brett Schrauben at his Coto de Caza residence prior to the murder. Schrauben has testified that Jessee's calls were to press him to execute the killing. But today, Jessee offered a more innocent excuse for her calls: She merely wanted to buy marijuana from Schrauben, her son's Target co-worker. In his testimony, Aehlert also said his mother's calls to Schrauben were part of the plot to kill the man who'd treated him like a son.
(Such nasty, insider details invokes images of pulp fiction, right, Mr. Bercher?)
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Testimony resumes tomorrow in the county's central Santa Ana courthouse and at some point prosecutor Murray will get his first chance to cross examine Jessee, who he believes has gotten away with murder for 13 years.
Go HERE to read a previous, more detailed report of the crime and trial.
The case is noteworthy not just because a mother-son duo allegedly plotted to kill the husband-stepfather, but also because OC law enforcement--the Placentia Police Department and OCSD along with Murray--refused to stop investigating.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly