Because she can't rely on beauty or wits, Sandra Jessee--the pot-smoking granny accused of shopping at Wal-Mart for an alibi while hit men she hired from Target executed her husband--knows her fate depends on whether a jury finds her credible.
After two of the other three alleged conspirators took the witness stand, confessed roles in the Rambo-knife murder and named her the evil mastermind behind the crime, Jessee decided to abandon her constitutional right to remain silent.
This week, she told the jury of six men and six women that she too "died" the day of the ambush killing of her husband in their Placentia home.
"I didn't believe it," a weepy, frowning Jessee testified was her first reaction to learning of the August 1998 murder. "I wanted to know what the hell happened. . . . I died the night he died. I, I, I couldn't go back [to the crime scene]. It wasn't my home anymore. . . . I cried . . . I didn't know where to go or what to do."
But Jessee's son, Thomas Aehlert, and his best friend, Brett Schrauben, have extensively testified about the conspiracy and the motive: access to the victim's life insurance and retirement funds. Schrauben, who was also Jessee's drug dealer, said he got paid $50,000 in installments for the job, but subcontracted the killing for $20,000 to his other best friend, Thomas Joseph Garrick. According to Schrauben and Aehlert, Jessee signaled by telephone when she would leave her husband, seriously weakened by two major surgeries, alone in their house.
Defense attorney Derek Bercher got Aehlert and Schrauben to admit they are scumbags and then spent hours trying to elicit character-demonstrating testimony from his client. From his perspective, jurors should know that the defendant was a generous, loving grandmother whose daily goal was to happily serve her husband's every need. Bercher has barely stopped short of making her a saint.
"Whatever he wanted or needed, he was going to get it . . . anything and everything," Jessee testified. "I was always in love with him."
She also claimed her wild, post-crime spending sprees, including countless hours smoking pot and playing video poker at casinos, weren't signs of joy but rather therapy to make herself feel closer to her dead spouse.
"If I saw it and I wanted it, I bought it in cash," she testified. "It was the only thing I had left--cash."
Cash also may help to convict her. Prosecutor Michael F. Murray believes he has solid evidence that Jessee withdrew chunks of cash from the bank before each of four installment payments for the killing--payments both Aehlert and Schrauben now acknowledge.
When Murray got his shot to question Jessee, he pounced.
"Who killed Jack Jessee?" he demanded to know without a hint of sympathy.
"I can't tell you," she said. "I don't know."
Any idea how the killer would know you'd be gone shopping on the night of the murder?
"No, I don't," she fired back.
Murray asked her why after the murder she and her son, the victim's stepson, kept notes near telephones that read, "Be careful. Somebody might be listening" and "Don't use cell phones."
Her answer to that question suggested odd phenomena. To Bercher's questions, Jessee rapidly recalled details of 15-year-old $40 transactions and other such minutia. But Murray discovered she often had amnesia during his questioning. She had no idea what the notes meant, she said.
After several hours of tough grilling, Jessee had dropped the sweet granny talk. Indeed, at one point, she snarled at Murray, who'd caught her in an apparent lie about her suspicious timeline on the night of the murder. There may not be a more intense prosecutor in Southern California and the pressure obviously rattled her. She angrily began answering questions that hadn't been asked. Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler agreed with Murray that the defendant was avoiding the prosecutor's inquiries. He ordered her to give responsive answers.
If I had to bet, the prosecutor, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the case, sealed a conviction on the morning of Nov. 30, the second day he had Jessee on the witness stand. Murray asked her if she recalled testifying for Bercher that she'd do "anything and everything" for her husband. She did.
But by this point, Jessee feared Murray's courtroom rhythm. He masks looming confrontations with a series of softball questions. The topic of her commitment to her husband made her pause. Over and over, Murray tried to get her to answer a simple question: What was her reaction when she learned that Jack's final colon surgery would require him to use a colostomy bag?
For almost five minutes, she pretended not to understand the question. The prosecutor asked a different question: Didn't you cover your ears, run to the corner of the hospital room and say that you weren't going to help your husband?
Jessee tersely said, "No."
As the clock ticked to 9:45 a.m., Murray picked up a file with jurors watching intensely. He approached Jessee and told her to read a written record. After a few seconds, she said, "I don't remember that, no."
A nurse had recorded in detail Sandra's reaction to learning that she would have to help her 56-year-old husband regularly empty his colostomy bag.
Murray loaded a question with this detail from the hospital report: Didn't you angrily refuse to help Jack?
Jessee's eyes squinted and she cocked her head to the left in a defiant stance.
"I remember being there [and] nothing else," she said.
Murray kept asking similar questions.
"I don't remember that happening," she said. "That whole time is vague."
Murray wouldn't give up, citing the nurse's description of her hostility. Jessee looked like she was going to explode. She held the prosecutor's stare.
"It didn't happen," he asked, "or you don't recall?"
Jessse stonewalled, providing another non-responsive answer: "I was there, yes."
Eventually, Murray got her to say the nurse had invented her observations.
The impact of the answer was immediate. Nobody, except perhaps Bercher, believes a nurse fabricated her notes. A few court observers audibly gasped; others shook their heads in disbelief.
Jessee had shattered the only thing she desperately needed: credibility. As the clock ticked to 9:51 a.m. in a silent, stunned courtroom, jurors closely watched for her reaction to what had just happened. But she turned her head sharply away and looked intensely at a far wall. I think even she knew what she had done. When she left the witness stand, she walked by the jury with her eyes fixed down to the carpet.
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If convicted, the 60-year-old Jessee faces a maximum prison term of life in prison without the possibility for parole.
Closing arguments are scheduled to begin on Monday.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly