Shantae Molina is Innocent
Photo by Jack GouldAs an Orange County jury prepared on Aug. 14 to announce its verdict in State of California vs. Molina, homicide prosecutor Robin Park inhaled deeply, grabbed the arm of her investigator, and nervously whispered, "Okay."
It seemed the usually hard-charging Park was hoping that a last-minute act of willpower might conjure up a first-degree murder conviction—or perhaps she was steeling herself for the coming prosecutorial disaster.
One thing was clear, however: for nearly two years, Park and the Orange County Sheriff's Department vigorously campaigned against Shantae Molina, a 22-year-old mother they said had "executed" her eight-month-old son in October 1998. Molina was equally vigorous in her own defense: despite the authorities' intense, sometimes questionable tactics to obtain her confession, the Laguna Niguel resident never wavered. She had accidentally shot baby Armani with her stepfather's handgun, she said, as she peered through a den window after hearing what she thought was a burglar outside.
Her three-week trial had proved as controversial as the investigation, even if the local daily media didn't notice. Now, after four days of deliberation, the jury of 10 women and two men was ready to rule. Would they vote for murder in the first or second degrees? Or for a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter?
Their answer: not guilty on all counts.
The verdict was an utter rebuke of Orange County law enforcement. The sheriff's department had used the media —the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register—to paint Molina as a cold-blooded killer, and the DA's office, through Park, had boasted that they had "all the evidence . . . solid evidence" necessary to send the young woman to prison for life.
The jury, however, saw it differently. "There just wasn't evidence," one juror said matter-of-factly. Two other jurors smiled warmly at an elated but weeping Molina and her defense attorneys, Eric Lampel and Jonathan Rivers. Even normally cynical reporters—including the very journalists who had dependably broadcast the prosecution's absurd story of infanticide—were congratulatory.
Park stood red-faced, seemed to nod to no one in particular, turned abruptly, and fled the crowded courtroom in silence. Despite failing to get a single vote for first-degree murder (the charge her office sought), second-degree murder or even involuntary manslaughter, Park told a television reporter in the corridor outside that she "obviously" remained confident in the righteousness of the case.
"Obviously"? Did a dense jury blow it and let a ruthless, baby-killing mother walk free? Or, as Molina asserts in the $25 million pre-lawsuit civil-rights claim she filed immediately following the verdict, did "abusive" prosecutors and "perjurious" sheriff's department detectives rush to judgment and cobble together a sensational, headline-grabbing murder case against an innocent woman?
The district attorney's office portrayed Molina as a conniving killer but never elected to do what might seem obvious: hire a mental-health professional to evaluate Molina. The defense, however, consulted Dr. Martha Rogers, a psychologist who, ironically, has most often testified for the Orange County DA.
On the behalf of the DA, the FBI and federal prosecutors, Rogers has studied thousands of criminals—including murderers. Following an examination of Molina, she determined that the defendant was likely innocent.
But, bowing to Park, Judge William R. Froeberg hamstrung Lampel's examination of the doctor.
"Mothers who murder their babies fall into certain scientific categories,"_said Lampel. "I_thought the jury was entitled to hear in-depth that information from a renowned expert, particularly because it helped exonerate Shantae."
The judge did, however, allow the DA to selectively cite a tiny portion of Rogers' two-inch-thick evaluation report. Park told the jury that Molina had admitted in a written true-false test that she had "not always been honest with herself" and that "when I was young, I sometimes stole things."
To the DA, these admissions were powerful evidence of Molina's guilt. To Rogers, who was barred from telling the jury that Park had taken the questions out of context, Molina's answers demonstrated her honesty.
"The point of those questions is to test someone's veracity," Rogers explained later. "Shantae didn't fail that test, as the DA implied to the jury. She passed it. She answered honestly. Think about it: everybody honest would have to admit that they have not always been honest with themselves and stole when they were children."
Despite a bitter plea by Lampel for Rogers to be allowed to clarify the test results that were twisted by Park, Froeberg refused. He ruled that it would not be proper evidence for the jurors to consider.
a word about the judge
Froeberg allows just one portrait to hang in his courtroom: an angry Clint Eastwood playing a decidedly pro-prosecution character in the movie Hang 'em High.
Froeberg is one of the countless Republican-appointed judges who control Orange County's Superior Court system. He's a dead ringer for Homer Simpson's boss, Montgomery Burns.
The comparisons don't end there. The former San Clemente business attorney has close ties to big corporate players. He has served as president of the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce. His wife, Rosanne, is a ranking district attorney and one of Park's colleagues.
It's unlikely that Froeberg will ever be a judicial zealot when it comes to protecting the rights of defendants. Two weeks ago, for example, the Fourth District Court of Appeals slapped Froeberg for his actions in another Orange County murder case. They said he had been "fundamentally unfair" to the defendant.
In the Molina case, Froeberg was a consistent and ardent supporter of the prosecution. He permitted the jury to hear highly prejudicial and arguably unrelated information about the defendant, but repeatedly blocked the defense from in-depth questioning of police and crime-lab personnel. Time and again, the judge saved Guest and the other detectives from questions that might have proved embarrassing. "I just don't see the relevance," he was fond of barking to the defense attorneys. When it came to the DA, Froeberg was routinely obliging, going so far as to suggest a proper objection when Park came up with a poor one.
Froeberg's questionable behavior was simply illustrated during the critical closing statements. While Park spoke, the judge sat attentively. But in full view of the jury, Froeberg spent the first 10 minutes of Lampel's riveting closing argument shuffling papers and noisily rolling back and forth in his leather chair. His paperwork finished, the judge yawned—and then interrupted to ask Lampel when he thought he was going to be finished for the day.
Perhaps no one wanted to be in the courtroom less than Armando Mendoza, Molina's boyfriend and Armani's father. The pain of the situation—his baby dead and his girlfriend charged with murder—was evident from the expressions on his face throughout the trial. Nevertheless, the South County elementary school janitor carried himself in a quiet, dignified manner. If anyone was a victim of circumstances in the case, it was Mendoza.
Park asserted that Molina murdered Armani because of a phone call from Mendoza minutes before the shooting. According to Park, Mendoza refused to commit to a precise time for a planned dinner date that night. Molina flew into a murderous "rage" during the telephone call, Park told jurors, and then picked up the gun and shot her baby—before making an "excellent 911 call."
The key witness in the prosecution's theory was Mendoza. But from the day of the shooting through his trial appearance, Mendoza was adamant that Molina was "normal [and] cheerful" during the telephone call. He knew nothing about her being the least bit upset about the timing of a dinner date. (Importantly, no other witnesses did, either.) Mendoza did testify, however, that sheriff's department detectives had repeatedly tried to get him to change his story before the trial.
"It was such a silly, demonstratively false theory," said Vince Rubalcava, Molina's close friend and neighbor.
The infamous Contact Wound
No piece of evidence in the case against Molina was more critical—or more inflammatory—than homicide detective David Guest's pretrial declaration that the baby had died from what ballistics experts call a "contact wound"—a bullet hole produced by a gun fired at point-blank range. The assertion was more than merely dramatic. It also bluntly contradicted Molina's story that she was two to three feet from the baby when the gun she had retrieved to ward off an intruder went off.
Guest used the contact wound at key early moments in the case: once to get a judge to sign an arrest warrant for Molina in November 1998 and again at a January 1999 preliminary hearing to keep the case alive. Froeberg noted that it was the pivotal piece of evidence and ordered Molina to stand trial.
There was one problem with Guest's assertion: there was never—not even briefly—any credible evidence of a contact wound. And Guest and his sheriff's department colleagues should have known it.
Confidential sheriff's department documents obtained by the Weekly show that three days after the Oct. 16, 1998, shooting—weeks before Guest obtained the arrest warrant and three full months before he testified at the preliminary hearing—the detective ordered gunshot-residue tests to determine the distance between the baby's head and the gun when it was fired.
The results—withheld from Molina's defense team for more than half a year—have never changed: there was no contact wound. The gun was at least 18 to 24 inches away, a distance that precisely mirrored Molina's story. A second test confirmed the results of the first.
In one of those peculiarities of Orange County justice, however, the jury would never learn of the contact-wound fiasco. Following publication of a pretrial cover story in the Weekly that recounted how the ballistics evidence had been used by Guest, Park demanded that Froeberg prohibit Molina's defense from raising the issue in the presence of the jury. Froeberg agreed that neither side could raise the contact-wound debacle.
The ruling was a severe blow to the defense, which sought to show jurors that the police investigation was tainted.
Strangely, the contact wound would be raised during the trial—not by the defense but, incredibly, by Park.
Despite Froeberg's pretrial ruling, the DA opened her closing argument with a dramatic prop—a professionally made chart labeled "Evidence of Guilt." Near the top of the chart, as Park pointed out for the jurors, was this assertion: "Bullet wound [was] consistent with a contact wound."
Park underscored the point by immediately telling jurors that Molina's son died from what "appears to be a contact wound."
Park's bald violation of the pretrial ruling sent the courtroom into an uproar. Molina's relatives, who had gathered throughout the trial, gasped.
"My innocent client's life is in the balance, and this DA blatantly commits prosecutorial misconduct," said Lampel, who has filed a state bar complaint against Park. "It was outrageous. My jaw dropped when she did it."
Lampel immediately filed a motion that the case should be dismissed based on the DA's move. Facing an error that could upend the trial, an angry Froeberg chastised Park outside the presence of the jury. He might have gone further, declaring a mistrial, ending the trial immediately, and freeing Molina.
Instead, in one of this strange trial's strangest moments, he brought the jury back and ordered jurors to "disregard" statements by "counsel" regarding the contact wound—never clarifying whether he meant defense or prosecution.
By then, it seemed the damage might be done: how to make a jury un-hear what it plainly heard?
Ditto for the media. The Register and the Times had already run stories that quoted Park incorrectly asserting that Molina had fired the gun against her baby's head. Neither paper mentioned that Park was reprimanded nor that there was no evidence of a contact wound.
Jimmy Ernest Turner looks like a middle-aged good old boy. On the witness stand, the sheriff's department firearms expert smiled warmly. He looked directly at the jury. He paused after questions, as if thinking about how best to explain a complicated subject to children. All in all, he presented himself as an unbiased scientist just doing his job.
With Guest's evidence barred from the trial, Turner might have been Park's most powerful prosecutorial weapon. And her most choreographed: questioned first by Park and then by the defense, Turner described the semi-automatic .25-caliber Beretta pistol used in the shooting.
That should have been the end of it, but California law allows what is called "redirect," a second questioning of the witness by the prosecutor.
Almost dancing with Park during redirect, Turner made the most startling accusation of the trial:
DA [casually]: Was there anything unusual about the gun?
Turner [smiling]: Yes, there was rust inside the muzzle.
DA [interested]: Is that significant?
Thomas [turning to jury, still smiling]: At some point between [it] being fired and me getting it, [the gun] came into contact with water.
A delighted Park thanked Turner and sat down, victorious. A cheering squad of 15 from the DA's office looked elated by what seemed a remarkable last-minute revelation.
The dramatic implication seemed to be that Molina had tried to wash evidence—human remains, perhaps—out of the barrel of the Beretta—hardly the action of an innocent woman.
But just as the once-solid evidence of a contact wound evaporated, so would the rust allegation. Under a final examination from defense attorney Rivers, Turner was forced to admit several critical, evidence-tainting blunders. Although it was the No. 1 murder case in the county at the time and dominated the media, Turner claims he discovered the rust—a potentially major piece of evidence in a homicide—but failed to save any of it for analysis or review by the defense. Nor did the sheriff's department employee notify his superiors. Nor did he mention the evidence in any of the three official reports he typed on the case. Nor had the first deputies on the scene noticed or reported moisture in the gun.
Then, after his alleged discovery of rust in the barrel, the 20-year veteran says he test-fired the weapon "more than 20 times."
Wouldn't firing the gun 20 times eliminate the rust you claimed to find? asked Rivers.
Turner cocked his head to the left and then to the right. He inched up in the witness chair and quickly glanced over to the jury. All eyes were on him. The arms of his blue suit jacket had climbed up near his elbows. His smile and friendly demeanor—so present during questioning by the prosecutor—disappeared.
Right, he said quietly.
And you didn't bother to send any of the rust to the trace-evidence lab for analysis?
No, Turner said solemnly.
Before Rivers excused him, the crime-lab expert conceded that the Beretta had been stored by the sheriff's department in an unsealed, hole-punched cardboard box.
"The whole rust thing was so absurd," Molina said. "Just like the rest of their case."
On the afternoon of the shooting, a sobbing but cooperative Molina begged officers to let her be with her dying son, then undergoing emergency surgery at Children's Hospital in Mission Viejo. Guest refused and drove her to the sheriff's station in Santa Ana, where he tested Molina for alcohol and drugs; both were negative. Though she wasn't under arrest, he had her photographed with a mug-shot identification board. Then Guest ordered Molina into an interrogation room where she was stripped and photographed naked. (The room has a one-way mirror for detectives, all of whom were white males, but they testified that they didn't watch.)
The defense argued that Guest had used the tests and photographs simply to humiliate Molina into confessing. A videotape of the incidents shows Guest persuading the mother to sign a "voluntary" search consent form outside the presence of Lampel, who was kept away in a nearby hallway, and telling her incorrectly that Lampel wouldn't object to a strip search. Guest advised Molina that her attorney would only care if she talked.
Park and Guest claimed that the nude photographs were routine and necessary to determine if Molina had any scratches or cuts on her body. The reasoning seemed plausible—if you accept that shooting an eight-month-old involves a struggle likely to produce scratches and cuts. But sensitive to the possibility that a jury might conclude the male detectives were engaged in harassment, Guest claimed early in the trial that he had only looked at contact sheets of the photos, never at the photos themselves.
Rivers pointed out two problems with the prosecution's narrative. First, it is practically impossible to make out scratches and cuts from a contact sheet.
Then a reluctant Froeberg allowed the defense to show jurors the least offensive photograph of Molina. Taken by a deputy from behind, the picture shows Molina's long hair fanned out across her shoulders and covering nearly half of her back. Rivers asked a stone-faced Guest how he could have determined the presence of cuts and scratches from such a photograph. Park objected, and the judge sustained it. Lampel asked the judge to explain.
Froeberg dismissed the jury again.
"Color me jaded, counsel," Froeberg told Lampel outside the presence of the jury. He added that he didn't see anything wrong with the tactic. After shrugging his shoulders, he added injudiciously, "It's a homicide."
The jury never learned how the nude photographs of a distraught mother figured into the police investigation.
In the audience sat former homicide detective Jack Holder, a 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who largely donated his services to Molina out of empathy. He shook his head and quietly uttered a curse word at Guest's nude-photo tactics. "That's not right," he said.
Sheriff's Deputy Sean Daniel Murphy seems like the kind of guy you might want at a party. He looks like he knows how to have fun, like he could tell a hell of a joke and then supply his own boisterous laugh track.
But testifying doesn't seem to be something the 17-year veteran detective enjoys. He arrived in court looking uncomfortable. He stole glances at the people around the room. He squirmed constantly in the witness chair.
According to Lampel, the detective also has a rare talent: "He's remarkably clairvoyant."
To obtain a search warrant from South County Magistrate Richard O. Frazee Sr., Murphy boldly predicted in official documents that he would find at Molina's house shocking evidence that "will aid in the prosecution of this crime."
Specifically, Murphy foresaw that something in the residence would prove Molina had "contemplated suicide in the recent past" and that she had "suffered [from] depression." He also told Frazee, "It is common for persons engaged in non-accidental crimes of violence to maintain evidence of motives within personal writings and printed materials such as personal diaries, notebooks and letters."
After obtaining the search warrant, police would claim that Murphy's predictions were exactly right: they found personal diaries, notebooks and letters in a purple binder under Molina's bed. The writings, dated back to a time one month before Molina's son was even conceived, described depression and vaguely referenced "doing something stupid" if her boyfriend left her.
The writings supposedly weren't found or viewed by Murphy prior to obtaining court permission, which, as Lampel later observed, meant "this Murphy guy has amazing powers. I've never seen anything like it."
There's something more amazing: Murphy claimed to find and collect the evidence after obtaining the search warrant from Frazee. His own notes—reviewed by the Weekly—show that the detective's last documented visit to the scene was at 3:30 p.m. He obtained the search warrant at 9 p.m.
Under piercing questioning by Lampel, Murphy claimed that he returned to the scene at a time he could not remember. But according to a meticulously maintained crime-scene log that details to the minute when an officer arrives and departs, there is no indication Murphy ever returned to the residence.
By the time Lampel was finished, Murphy sat glumly in the witness chair, his sullen face resting in the upturned palm of his right hand.
Just before she was to deliver her closing argument, Park walked gingerly by the person she would in minutes describe as a premeditated baby killer to give a Weekly reporter a cold, lengthy sneer. A nearby Carlos Molina observed, "You'd think you were on trial for murder and not my daughter."
Before the trial began, a spectator who had relied on the Register for news of the case commented that he thought Molina was "probably" guilty. His reasoning? The sheriff's department claimed that the defendant had kept a highly incriminating piece of evidence under her bed. The evidence? A newspaper clipping about an Orange County woman sentenced for murdering her baby. It was dated a year and a half before Armani was killed. In the January 1999 preliminary hearing, Guest cited this as evidence of Molina's premeditation. The local daily newspapers played the report prominently.
But the detective left several important exculpatory details out. The clipping wasn't a clipping at all, but the entire May 13, 1997, Los Angeles Times Metro section. The murdering-mother story was just one of about 30 articles in the paper that day. Also, the paper was found in a purple binder that held high school class assignments, including one called "Fun with Nouns and Verbs." That Metro section was, in fact, used for an assignment. The assignment was related to that day's leading front-page Metro story about Denise Huber, an Orange County woman whose body was found in a freezer in Arizona.
Should Guest and Park have known their "evidence" was actually meaningless? Although the detective did not disclose it until forced to on the witness stand in the winding days of the murder trial, Molina had used a red pen to underline sections of the assigned story. The prosecution team never bothered to ask Molina's high school teacher about the paper or the assignment.
Crimes Are Like Puzzles
In her closing statement to the jury, a smiling Park casually referenced Perry Mason and then opined, "Crimes are sort of like puzzles."
But in 22 months of a supposedly "excellent investigation" (Park's words), neither the Orange County Sheriff's Department nor the DA considered an important piece in that puzzle: Dr. Naomi Uchiyama, Armani's pediatrician. Statistically, an overwhelming number of infants murdered by their parents have already suffered a history of physical or mental abuse. A pediatrician might provide important clues. But even after the defense listed the doctor as a witness, Park was oddly uninterested. She didn't place a single telephone call to Uchiyama.
Why they might have skipped the pediatrician became abundantly clear during the trial. Uchiyama testified for the defense that Molina was a "caring and loving and appropriate" mother who never missed an appointment and that her baby was "thriving . . . alert and active and happy." Importantly, the doctor also said she never saw evidence of bruises or trauma during the baby's life.
The pediatrician's testimony was devastating to the DA, who had strongly (and wildly, as it turned out) suggested during the trial's opening statement that a sociopathic Molina had planned to murder her child even before conception. Rather than try to downplay Uchiyama's testimony, an argumentative Park tried to discredit and confuse her. But the doctor would have none of it. At one point, the DA tried to bury an incorrect premise in a long question, saying that there were "records of bruises and injuries" for the baby.
"There were no bruises," the incredulous doctor fired back. "Are you trying to imply that there were bruises?"
An ashen Park demanded that the judge reprimand the doctor. Froeberg lamely acknowledged that a witness shouldn't interrupt a prosecutor but left Uchiyama's retort on the record.
After several minutes of further inane, contentious questioning that elicited sustained "asked and answered" objections by Lampel, a visibly befuddled Park quickly scribbled something on a yellow legal notepad and flashed it to her investigator:
"Anything else? HELP ME!"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts