Closing arguments began today in the two-month long trial of five jail inmates accused of murdering John Chamberlain, a suspected child molester, at Theo Lacy Jail on Oct. 5, 2006. While both prosecutors and defense attorneys have sparred over seemingly every aspect of the complex case, both sides evidently feel that my April 2008 story “I Lit the Fire,” in which defendant Jared Petrovich provided exclusive details about Chamberlain's death, is crucial to understanding the truth of what happened.
For prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh, the facts of the case couldn't be simpler: Petrovich, the leader of the Woods, or white jail inmates, told his buddies that Chamberlain, who was actually awaiting trial for misdemeanor child pornography possession, was a child molester. Then he met with leaders of the two Hispanic gangs, the Paisanos and Southsiders, a meeting that set in motion the brutal assault that resulted in Chamberlain's death. To drive home his argument that the defendants' hatred of Chamberlain was so strong that the jury should find them guilty of first-degree murder, Baytieh quoted from a passage in my story where Petrovich made callous comments about Chamberlain.
“He was a creepy-looking dude,” Baytieh quoted Petrovich telling me. “He looked weird. All those perverts look the same. He was like a little pig. Fat and little.”
Showing that Petrovich and the rest of the defendants felt no mercy for Chamberlain wasn't too difficult, given that nobody denies that dozens of inmates, including the five defendants, punched, kicked and stomped the victim to death over the course of 30 to 45 minutes. Baytieh also repeatedly showed jurors a photograph of Chamberlain's bruised and bloodied face, taken in the hospital shortly after his death.
“They were not satisfied with just beating him up and killing him,” Baytieh insisted. “When he lost consciousness, they threw water on his face. They wanted him to be awake…There was conscious disregard for human life all over the place.”
My interview with Petrovich also proved central to the rather electrifying closing argument of Petrovich's defense attorney, Keith Davidson, who gave a powerful speech urging jurors not to forget the numerous problems and inconsistencies that have plagued the case from the very beginning.
First of all, the crime took place in a jail run by the Orange County Sheriff's Department, whose deputies were “implicated” in the crime early on, Davidson noted, and yet the agency saw fit to investigate “itself,” not surprisingly finding that only inmates, and no prison guards, were worth prosecuting. Davidson then referred to the same OC Weekly article Baytieh had mentioned, in which Petrovich stated that a guard named Kevin Taylor had outed Chamberlain as a child molester, instructing him to see to it that Chamberlain was roughed up.
“There's a child molester in [bunk] J7,” Davidson quoted Taylor telling Petrovich. “And you know what happens when there's a child molester.” Davidson then read further portions of the article in which Petrovich told me how nobody, including Taylor, envisioned Chamberlain being murdered, but simply assaulted, but how the attack quickly spread out of control, which is why he attempted to stop it. “I said, 'That's it,” Petrovich told me. “No more. It's over….I walk out… and I see 50 Mexicans running in there. I said, 'Stop,' but they kept on coming.”
Assuming there was a conspiracy, Davidson told the jury, it clearly began with Taylor, and didn't involve murder. “We know who really lit the fire,” he said. Furthermore, Davidson pointed out, of the three guards on duty that evening, Taylor refused to testify for fear of incriminating himself and the two others have been granted immunity–thus implying some sort of guilt–including one guard who admitted he falsified a jail log regarding Chamberlain. And then, he added, there's the fact that the videotape of the barracks during the time when the attack took place mysteriously disappeared.
“This whole case stinks to high heaven,” Davidson said. “You are the last hope for justice.” Ever since ancient Greece, he added, philosophers have asked the question: what happens when those who have absolute authority abuse that authority? Who will guard the guards?
“In this case, the answer to that question is you,” he concluded. “It's you.”