After deliberating less than three hours, a jury today convicted pot-smoking, Orange County grandmother Sandra Jessee for hiring hit men, including her own son, to brutally kill her husband with a Rambo-knife in a 1998 murder-for-financial-gain scheme.
Jessee's face looked ashen when a court clerk announced the guilty verdicts, but there was no outward hint of emotion even though her weepy, strenuous claims of innocent had been officially unmasked as despicable lies and she'll never see freedom again.
Several feet away, Jack Jessee's adult daughters from another mother, wept. They've waited an excruciating 13 years for justice to slap their cold-blooded, money-hungry stepmother in the face. "Finally," said Chere Williams, the victim's oldest daughter. "We've waited so long for this day."
"I am relieved," said Williams' sister, Cheryl.
Jury foreman James Kline, a contractor from Anaheim, said homicide prosecutor Michael F. Murray had "a ton of circumstantial evidence--dozens of important pieces."
"We were surprised that she took the witness stand," said Kline. "But her testimony wasn't credible. It just didn't ring true."
According to Kline, the jury of six men and six women "got along great," "talked about questions" during deliberations and discovered they all agreed: "She had Jack Jessee killed."
"Everyone of us felt confident about our decision," he added. "It was huge that two of the conspirators--Brett Schrauben and Tom Aehlert--confessed and pointed at her too."
Kline said the defendant's attempts to explain away damning evidence--for example, talking in code on the phone about the murder with her accomplice son or going on wild, spending sprees with the victim's death proceeds--"didn't float."
"It really bothered me that one day after her husband had been chopped to pieces, she was busy writing checks for every day household things like nothing had happened," said Kline. "Who does that?"
During my interview, a clever investigator for public defender Derek Bercher, Jessee's lawyer, tried to get the foreman to say that he'd made up his mind about guilt before the end of the trial--a legal no, no that the defense team can use to challenge the conviction with a state appeals court.
I don't think Kline understood the potential ramifications of the investigator's question, but he said, "No, I waited to hear all of the evidence before I made up my mind."
Juror Cheryl Nagel also thought Jessee helped convict herself.
"She just wasn't believable," said Nagel. "When Jack Jessee's picture was put on the screen she wouldn't look it. That was suspicious to me."
After the hearing, the victim's family hugged and thanked law enforcement officers instrumental in solving the case: prosecutor Murray, Orange County Sheriff's Department investigators Brian Sutton and Tom Dove--who now works for the Riverside County District Attorney, and the first Placentia police detective on the case, Daron Wyatt.
"This is a great day," said Wyatt, who currently works for the Anaheim Police Department. "I couldn't be happier for the family."
David Jessee, the victim's brother, was out of state on business when the verdict was announced, but he must be satisfied. He single-handedly got the onetime floundering investigation transferred from Placentia PD to a more resourceful sheriff's homicide unit.
"I was inspired by David," said Dove, whose dogged undercover wiretap and surveillance work in two states cracked the case. "He really loved his brother and wanted justice."
Murray, who came within one vote of convicting Jessee during a 2009 trial, told reporters that he had a strong circumstantial evidence case.
"There is one inescapable conclusion: [Sandra Jessee] is a murderer and these conscientious jurors did justice today for Jack Jessee," said the veteran prosecutor.
Bercher battled Murray ferociously--going so far as telling jurors that the prosecutor had worked to frame an innocent woman. He didn't speak to gathered reporters, but several jurors praised his courtroom prowess.
"He did a good job with what he had to work with," said one male juror who declined to give his name.
Jessee, 60 and the daughter of a Chicago cop, now must await her punishment hearing. But there will be no surprises on March 2. She faces life in prison without the possibility for parole.
While locked in her prison cell she can contemplate her criminal stupidity on a daily basis.
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According to the autopsy report, her cancer-stricken husband would have died of natural causes within two months of the murder and the $600,000 she desperately wanted would have landed legally in her lap.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly
(rscottmoxley at ocweekly dot com)