Deja vu once again appeared today in an Orange County courtroom as prosecutors hoped to officially solve a wild, $50,000 1998 hit-man murder in Placentia.
Three years ago, prosecutor Michael F. Murray stood before a different jury and accused Sandra Jessee and Thomas Aehlert of ordering the murder of her husband/his stepfather for financial gain.
Murray, an elite member of the District Attorney's accomplished homicide unit, wasn't able to obtain a conviction because a lone juror decided she sympathized with Aehlert and couldn't picture him involved in the conspiracy.
But since that 2009 hung jury, Murray got Aehlert to drop his strenuous claims of innocence in exchange for a lesser prison sentence and a duty to testify against his own mother.
Murray said today that upcoming evidence will prove Sandra Jessee's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Because of her greed, she decided Jack Jessee's life should end," he told the jury.
On Aug. 13, 1998, an intruder repeatedly stabbed the victim in his home and fled. Though weak from a recent surgery, Jack Jessee fought valiantly but bled to death before his wife came home from shopping. Sandra Jessee said she was shocked by the crime and handed over store receipts as an alibi.
The case remained unsolved for years until Orange County Sheriff's Department detective Tom Dove took over the investigation. Dove's investigatory prowess eventually helped outline a conspiracy involving Sandra Jessee, her son Thomas, Aehlert's best friend and Target co-worker Brett Schrauben and his friend T.J. Garrick.
The first to confess was Schrauben, who served 515 days in the Orange County Jail in exchange for testifying against the other defendants. Now Murray will have Aehlert testify about the conspiracy and finger his mother as the mastermind who was motivated by death proceeds in excess of $574,000. Garrick, the man Murray believes is the actual killer, has denied involvement and has never been arrested.
"Finally, after all these years, hold [Sandra Jessee] responsible for the murder of Jack Jessee," Murray said at the conclusion of his opening statement.
But if there is one lawyer in Orange County's court system who isn't intimidated by Murray or his forceful presentations, it is Derek Bercher, Sandra Jessee's hard-charging, veteran public defender. Like in the first trial, Bercher told jurors that Murray is too close to the case and is recklessly prosecuting an innocent woman.
"What the evidence will show is that she was a loving wife," said Bercher. "She did not kill him. She didn't want him dead and she did not participate in any cockamamie scheme to have the man she loved killed."
According to Bercher, Murray's case relies on a twisted view of the facts and two prolific liars: Schrauben and Aehlert.
"[My client] wasn't involved in this conspiracy at all," he assured the jury. "Keep an open mind and I am hopeful and confident you will return a just verdict of not guilty."
Four times, Murray objected to Bercher's opening statement as improper argument. Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler--a soft-spoken member of the bench who possesses unimpeachable integrity--agreed with the prosecutor three of those times. But Bercher, someone you'd want on your side in a street fight, likely doesn't care about the admonishments. To block a conviction, he needs just one juror to doubt Murray's version of events.
Two jurors from the first trial attended today's hearing. They had voted guilty and firmly believe in the righteousness of Murray's charges. "We really feel bad for [Jack Jessee's] family having to do this all over again," one of them told me during a break in proceedings. "[The prosecutor] more than proved his case to us."
The victim's surviving family--who have now waited a whopping 13 years for justice--attend every court hearing.
The trial is expected to last three or four weeks.
Producers from "Dateline NBC" have shown an interest in the case.
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If convicted, Jessee--now 60 years old--faces a potential maximum term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Go HERE to read my previous cover story about the first murder trial.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly
(rscottmoxley at ocweekly dot com)