On the eighth day in the retrial of Sandra Jessee—the pot-smoking grandmother accused of hiring Orange County Target store employees, including her own "mama's boy" son, as hit men to eliminate her husband—exasperated prosecutor Michael F. Murray stiffened and threw his pen on the table as wide-eyed jurors watched.
Derek Bercher, Jessee's wily public defender, had just asked sheriff's investigator Brian Sutton a blatantly improper question: Sutton had met with Thomas Joseph Garrick, the man law-enforcement detectives believe is the actual "Rambo-knife" wielding killer, and didn't arrest him, did he? Sutton confirmed that fact. But Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler had unequivocally ruled in pretrial motions that Garrick's free status was banned, prejudicial information for the Jessee jury.
Murray objected; Stotler sustained his objection and sent the jury out of the courtroom.
"Give me a chance to cool down," the prosecutor said after the jury had left.
Far from a meaningless technical violation, Murray believed Bercher's move was an intentional, underhanded effort to undermine the government's case. Armed with the knowledge that Garrick is a free man who has never been held accountable for the Aug. 13, 1998, crime, jurors might reasonably question what in the hell the prosecutor was doing, or conclude his evidence was faulty, Murray told Stotler.
"I'm going to ask for sanctions," the prosecutor, a West Point graduate who came within one vote of convicting Jessee in the first trial three years ago, continued after a few moments of silence that only seemed to fuel his anger. "That was outrageous—to get whether or not [Garrick] had been arrested in front of this jury . . . Mr. Bercher engaged in misconduct."
During these courtroom battles, Bercher usually matches or tops Murray's Type A personality. But in this instance, he'd already won: He'd gotten the damaging information to the jury, and nothing the prosecutor could now do would, as Murray explained to Stotler, "un-ring the bell." Plus, Bercher scored a bonus against one of the fiercest prosecutors in Southern California, in that he'd gotten under Murray's skin, an accomplishment that will surely bring hearty cocktail toasts at future defense bar parties.
"I understand Mr. Murray's anger," he said solemnly, managing to hold off a satisfied smirk until the judge wasn't looking.
I'd lost track of the number of times Bercher had previously violated a court order in the case, and each time, a furious Murray had to accept Stotler's determination that the public defender's errors had been "inadvertent" or "accidental." This judge's generous findings belied the fact that each of Bercher's supposedly accidental transgressions benefited the defense and that he'd made similar moves in the first Jessee trial run by a different judge.
"He operates with impunity," Murray complained to Stotler. If the prosecution had committed Bercher's errors, the defense would be granted a mistrial, he added. The judge agreed with the last assertion, and the prosecutor invited him to inflict some "pain" on Bercher as a way to discourage future misconduct.
Of the county's veteran major trial judges, Stotler is one of the most cautious, with a sweet, grandfatherly demeanor. Even when the jury isn't present, he's incredibly hesitant to single out Bercher for criticism, choosing instead to make generic statements that ask both lawyers to behave. Stotler also employs a form of "time out" when the lawyers' skirmishes become too intense. He tells rambling, mind-numbing personal stories that tend to defuse tempers if from nothing else than confusion.
Stotler admitted mounting frustration with the public defender, but—for the umpteenth time—he declined to give Murray what he wanted. He announced he would postpone consideration of sanctions against Bercher until after the trial because he didn't want to "chill" his aggressive defense of Jessee.
The savage killing of Jack Jessee, a popular Fujitsu employee in Anaheim, went officially unsolved for nine years. In 2007, Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) homicide investigators Sutton and Tom Dove won a confession from Brett Schrauben. He claimed that his Target co-worker (and best friend) Tom Aehlert and Aehlert's mother, Sandra Jessee, hired him as a hit man for $50,000. They signaled him when Sandra would leave to go shopping so that she had an alibi, according to Schrauben. At the duo's 2009 trial, Schrauben claimed that despite his reputation as a "bad boy," he'd chickened out and subcontracted the murder to another Target co-worker, Thomas Joseph Garrick, for $20,000.
Thanks in part to Schrauben—who walks like a starving penguin that has spotted fresh food—Murray convinced 11 of 12 jurors that Aehlert and Jessee are murderers, too. Before this second trial, Aehlert decided that he, too, would abandon the conspiracy in exchange for a lesser conviction, second-degree murder, and the chance to win parole from prison after serving at least 15 years. (Schrauben's deal, arranged through legendary Orange County defense lawyer John Barnett, was much sweeter: He served just 515 days in the Orange County Jail and, except for having to testify for Murray, resumed his life in Arizona.)
In the ongoing trial, both Schrauben and Aehlert—who obtained a criminal justice degree and dreamed of being a cop—have testified that Jessee ordered the killing and used her murdered husband's money to pay for the hit. Aehlert used his tainted income to buy a home near Phoenix; Schrauben bought a new pickup truck and a Jet Ski.
Bercher has repeatedly accused the men of "throwing Mrs. Jessee under the bus" by fabricating a story that satisfies Murray's "ridiculous" theory in the case in exchange for sweetheart deals. Under the defense attorney's grilling, both men reluctantly acknowledged they are prolific, self-serving liars. Both also admit that Jack Jessee was a kind man who'd done nothing wrong to either of them.
So far the only potential villain who has escaped Murray's wrath is Garrick. According to Aehlert's testimony, Garrick supplied him details about the killing, including the assertion that he left a dying Jack Jessee on his living room floor, started to flee but decided to return to drive even more knife wounds into the victim. Schrauben told the jury that Garrick used his portion of the murder payments to fix his teeth, which had turned black from an addiction to smoking methamphetamines.
Garrick, a Laguna Hills resident, has told OCSD investigators he is innocent, according to a recorded interview reviewed by the Weekly.
Ironically, one of the biggest supporters of Garrick's innocence is Bercher. He claims Aehlert and Schrauben told a self-serving tale that casts his client as mastermind and Garrick as assassin. And he's right, at least in part. The two men seem to have minimized their involvement.
But the defense lawyer's theory gets more nefarious. He wants the six men and six women on the jury to believe there's another evil guy in the case: Murray. According to Bercher, his courtroom nemesis provided a script for Aehlert and Schrauben in the hope of nailing his innocent client.
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Said Bercher, "[Sandra Jessee] wasn't involved in this conspiracy at all."
This column appeared in print as "A Rhetorical Knife Fight: In the Sandra Jessee murder case, the attorneys battle it out while the judge holds off on imposing sanctions."