In a Newport Beach courtroom of the California Superior Court, defense attorney Jon Alexander, dressed in a designer suit and black leather cowboy boots, paced between the lectern and the defense table as he argued that the victim in this murder trial was his client, not the dead gay man.
Despite a maverick appearance dominated by a full head of wavy brown hair and a beard, Alexander sensed he "connected" with the Orange County jury when he said Scott Andrew Stockwell killed in the "heat of passion" after being provoked by Boyd W. Finkel, a "maniacal" homosexual, who died trying "to break a straight guy into gay."
To the five-man, seven-woman jury summoned to determine if Stockwell's fatal attack on Finkel, a successful businessman, constituted murder or the lesser finding of manslaughter, Alexander offered this summation: "This is a case about perversion…and how normal people react…"
At the table next to Alexander sat Debora Lynn Lloyd, a 10-year deputy district attorney whose sweet demeanor belied the doggedness that had never lost her a murder case. Stockwell was no different from hundreds of criminals whom she had seen scramble to avoid responsibility. Although the defense offered no less than five excuses, the prosecutor believed Stockwell had committed cold-blooded murder and was bent on exploiting the victim's homosexuality before the jury.
She was convinced Stockwell had had consensual sex with Finkel, only to later "have second thoughts," lose his temper and bludgeon his host to death. Even if the unarmed and less-than-imposing Finkel had made an unwanted sexual pass, Lloyd said, a reasonable person would have fled, not stayed and killed. Her response to Stockwell's story was sharp. "Wouldn't it be amazing if a person got off of murder with that defense?" Lloyd asked the jury. "We cannot excuse people who have bad tempers from murder… [Stockwell] made sure Boyd Finkel was never going to talk about what really happened."
The fates of the two men collided on a weekend in October 1983, when Stockwell, a 21-year-old transient, took his position on the southbound shoulder of the San Diego Freeway somewhere near Santa Monica Boulevard. Through heavy prescription glasses too large for his face, he looked expectantly into the wary eyes of passing motorists. The $100 in his wallet could have purchased a bus ticket to San Diego, but "Scruff," as his friends called him, preferred the risks of hitchhiking.
For the next couple of hours, Stockwell stood waiting on the side of the highway, chain-smoking cigarettes. Having depended on the kindness of strangers since receiving a less-than-honorable discharge from the Navy eight months before, the Wisconsin native knew someone would eventually pull over. That someone would be ignorant, however, of the passenger's criminal history and his abuse of alcohol and drugs, including heroin. The driver would not know the tattoo-covered hitchhiker had been diagnosed in 1979 as a psychopath.
Boyd Finkel had his ups and downs, but he was more satisfied with his life than most 39-year-olds. Entrepreneur-ially gifted, Finkel owned a Newport Beach advertising firm and three wholesale tire and automotive accessory stores. Employees said he was a pleasant, conservatively dressed boss who allowed them to use his home when he traveled. Finkel, described by a friend as a "Wally Cox kind of guy," settled in Irvine after splitting his time between homes in Washington, D.C., and Southern California. He tended to shift conversations to automobiles and owned a Ferrari, a Porsche and several Mercedes, including a 300 SL Gull Wing. He enjoyed mellow evenings sipping drinks at the Little Shrimp, the gay restaurant and bar in Newport Beach.
But the acumen he displayed in business did not extend to his personal life. Finkel liked casual sex with tough, blue-collar men and was arrested twice by undercover vice cops stationed in quarter movie booths. To avoid trouble, Finkel occasionally roamed the highways of Los Angeles and Orange counties looking for hitchhikers willing to indulge his desires in exchange for a ride, a decent meal or a place to spend the night. Though numerous men rejected his offer, he was more successful than you might expect. Finkel thought he had found a way to have consensual sex safely, albeit unconventionally. He was wrong.
When Finkel failed to show at the office, employee Anthony Settember drove to his boss's house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac and found the mail unretrieved and newspapers scattered outside. No one answered the front door. For a week, friends speculated on whether he had taken an unexpected trip or fallen ill. Finkel's parents in Florida hadn't heard from their son either. Nine days after he had last been seen—eating dinner on Oct. 15 with friends at Newport Beach's Chanteclair restaurant—the police were notified.
On Monday, Oct. 24, 1983, three patrolmen entered the single-story house after cutting the garage's padlock. They found a Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times open in the kitchen. The comics section rested on the floor next to the living room couch. A large brown bloodstain soiled the beige carpet nearby. Closer inspection uncovered additional stains and spatters. Most significantly, bloody drag marks led police to the trunk of a 1971 Cadillac convertible parked in the garage. Any hope the officers had that this was a routine missing persons case faded when they popped the trunk.
Finkel's decomposing body lay twisted over the spare tire next to a blood-soaked yellow blanket. He was barefoot and shirtless. A pair of black slacks covered his legs, all four pants pockets pulled out. On a shelf nearby, they found an industrial-size rubber hammer, covered in blood, hair and bone fragments, but without any fingerprints whatsoever.
Coroner Richard Fukumoto found that the killer had repeatedly slugged Finkel with the hammer. One of the three blows considered fatal crushed through the cranium and penetrated the brain. By the time the attacker finished, according to Fukumoto, Finkel's face was battered, his ribs were broken, and his skull resembled a cracked eggshell.
Irvine Police Detective Larry Montgomery said Finkel had been sitting on his living room couch reading the Sunday funnies when the killed approached from behind and began swinging. The attack's ferocity splattered blood as far away as the dining room wall, some 15 feet away. Even after Finkel lay motionless and bleeding profusely, authorities believe, the beating continued. In Fukumoto's opinion, a lack of defensive wounds indicated Finkel never knew what hit him. Police later learned the killer stayed for two hours after the attack, drinking beer, showering and searching the house before stealing Finkel's Honda Prelude.
Finger, foot and palm prints left at the scene could not be matched in law enforcement files. Police arrested and promptly released a Garden Grove short-order cook whose nude photograph was discovered in Finkel's dresser. The mystery deepened a month later, when a hunter found the stolen car wrecked and abandoned off a hunting trail near Boulder, Montana. Prints in the car matched those at Finkel's.
Though he considered Finkel's sex life distasteful, Montgomery, the 19-year police veteran who headed the investigation, believed a murderer was loose. His stubborn pursuit took him and his partner, Pete Linton, as far away as Oklahoma three years after the crime. When they exhausted all leads, the case became inactive. It would remain unsolved for a decade.
The clue that solved the puzzle came in 1993, after Montana law enforcement agencies joined a nationwide trend among states and placed their fingerprint records online. At the Irvine P.D., Sergeant Scott Cade, who remembered the Finkel murder and that the killer's get-away car had been ditched in Montana, investigated the new database. The automated fingerprint system compared the killer's prints and generated a list of possible matches. To declare a match, Cade said, police look for "basically 10" points of similarity between prints. Cade reviewed each of the files, found a match and, two days after getting his hunch, shared with Montgomery and Linton the identity of the killer: Scott Andrew Stockwell. Had he not been fingerprinted for drunk driving in Montana in 1986, Stockwell might never have been linked to the killing.
A preliminary investigation determined Stockwell spent his first five years on the run living in Montana, where he worked as a nurse's aide at an adult disability center. During this time, he struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol. Sources there said Stockwell had not been seen since 1988, when he married a co-worker and left the state. His whereabouts remained a mystery for weeks until a policeman in Marinette, Wisconsin, a rural community one hour north of Green Bay, saw a nationwide "wanted" bulletin and recognized the suspect from a sexual assault case involving Stockwell's wife, Megan. Using his wife's case as an excuse, detectives persuaded Stockwell, who was working at a foundry making pistons and living in a dilapidated trailer, to come by the police station.
When he arrived to talk with local police, Stockwell was shocked to find the two Irvine homicide detectives who had been searching for him for 10 years. During the interrogation, Stockwell initially claimed Finkel was alive and well when he last saw him. But when confronted with evidence to the contrary, he admitted killing Finkel, waived extradition and, on May 19, 1993, was flown back to Orange County to face justice. Megan Stockwell thought her husband had done nothing wrong and told a Los Angeles Timesreporter shortly after his arrest, "He comes across rough and tough. But he's just a big teddy bear once you get to know him.
Based on a fellow inmate's recommendation, Stockwell retained Alexander for $500, all the money he could raise. Alexander offered a plea bargain of voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a lesser sentence, but the proposal was rejected. The DA's office had confidence in the typical severity with which Orange County juries treat criminals. But this was not a typical case, even for murder.
With his client facing a possible life sentence, Alexander turned to cases in which the defense argued a reduction of charges when the perpetrator was straight and the victim gay. He did not have to look far. In 1988, a Texas man who stalked and killed two gay men was sentenced to 30 years instead of life by Dallas Judge Jack Hampton, who said he didn't "…much care for queers…" That same year, Judge Daniel Futch seemed puzzled that a Florida prosecutor brought charges against two men who called a man "faggot" and then beat him to death. According to American Bar Association transcripts, Judge Futch asked, "That's a crime now, to beat up a homosexual?" The prosecutor replied, "Yes, sir. And it's a crime to kill them."
"Times really have changed," said the judge.
But the case that caught Alexander's eye was People vs. White. In 1978, Dan White, a disgruntled conservative politician who felt slighted by the growing political clout of San Francisco's gay community, crawled through a window in City Hall, shot Mayor George Moscone four times, reloaded and walked down the hall to kill Supervisor Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly gay elected official. In a stunning non sequitur, the defense argues that eating an excessive amount of junk food (the "Twinkie defense") caused White to temporarily lose responsibility for his actions. The jury bought it. White received a sentence of seven years and eight months for killing two unarmed men. The jury left the courthouse in a sympathetic frenzy for White and his ultimate act of homophobia.
The lessons of White's trial were not lost on Alexander. If he turned the trial into a tacit referendum on the victim's homosexuality, Alexander could sway the jury from a murder verdict, dispelling the requisite "malice" by casting Stockwell as the victim of a villainous homosexual. Although Alexander told the jury, "This is not the Twinkie defense," the resemblance to White's "diminished capacity" strategy is striking. Alexander, a former public defender, claimed his client's mental capacity was diminished not by sugar but by excessive alcohol and drug consumption as well as by posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Prosecutor Lloyd hotly disputed the claims, calling these "psychiatric ploys for sympathy…worse than the Twinkie defense."
PTSD has been diagnosed among survivors of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Korean POW camps, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. It is the clinical response to overwhelming, catastrophic stress. But if you believe defense witness Dr. Glenn Lipson, a San Diego psychiatrist, Stockwell's sudden homicidal "rage" was a PTSD episode included by Finkel's alleged advances.
"Typically," Lipson told the court, "heterosexuals have a strong aversion to homosexuality—almost an overreaction." Because there is "testosterone involved," straight males respond to homosexual contact by "seeing red." But drugs, alcohol and old military taboos made the incident with Finkel so "traumatic," Stockwell felt "numb" as he picked up the mallet and attacked. Sympathizing with Stockwell's lies to police, Lipson, who was located by Alexander's county-paid detective, explained away the false accounts as an "obligation to his family."
Under cross-examination, Lipson conceded Stockwell had a "very bad temper" and had once said, "When I get drunk, I get violent and I don't fight fair." He noted that Stockwell talked of being "abusive to girls," liking bondage, and staying "sober for three or four months when he was 16." Lipson also admitted the defendant had suffered from "a lot of emotional and self-esteem problems" but disputed a 1979 psychological report that described the defendant's psychopathic tendencies. Relying on the defendant's jailhouse version of the crime, Lipson, who testifies frequently as an expert witness, believed Stockwell did not intend to kill but was merely responding to the "situation."
Day after day in the courtroom, Alexander undermined sympathy for the victim. "[Stockwell's] a heterosexual. His preference is for females," Alexander reassured the jury. "Scott's a decent guy with a stable family, a beautiful wife and a 5-year-old daughter." Stockwell's handkerchief-holding wife, seated behind the defense table, sobbed and was comforted by a matronly woman (actually Alexander's mother) who jurors believed was the defendant's grandmother.
The deceased was a "domineering and calculating" homosexual who "would have died anyway," said Alexander. "[Finkel] got off taking straight guys and making them do homosexual acts. Welcome to Boyd Finkel's circle of hell." For maximum impact, Alexander introduced testimony from two of Finkel's sex partners and the contents of his private conversations with a psychiatrist. The details unsettled many jurors.
On the witness stand, Stockwell played on their disgust. He swore he was unaware Finkel was gat when he asked to spend the night. At the house, he drank a Budweiser and Finkel asked if he wanted to "clean up." Stockwell said Finkel shocked him by opening the shower door and offering to wash his back, a suggestion he says he declined. He put on OP shorts and ate a sandwich with his host. Stockwell said he then made himself four or five 8-ounce drinks of gin and orange juice.
Later in the evening, he was washing clothes in the garage when Finkel and a second man carried him to the master bedroom, where Stockwell was held down, he said, so Finkel could orally copulate him. He didn't fight because he felt "woozy." (Alexander speculated that his client may have been slipped a "Mickey Finn.") After about 30 minutes, the assailants left Stockwell in bed and chatted in the living room. The nameless second man, described as having blond hair and tattoos, left as quickly as he had come. When his host allegedly tried to assault him again, Stockwell thought about leaving but was blocked, chased and verbally taunted. In the version he originally told police, Stockwell had Finkel saying, "You liked it, didn't you? You want to do it again?" before "I beat the shit out of him." But on the stand, Stockwell claimed he was backed into the garage and, frightened, grabbed the mallet in self-defense. When Finkel retreated down a hallway pleading with him to "relax," Stockwell remembered knocking his unarmed host to his knees and continuing to beat him before "everything kinda went black." Afterward, he sat over the body repeating, "What the fuck am I going to do?" He did not call police or an ambulance but stuffed Finkel's body in the Cadillac's trunk, searched the house and grabbed a bottle of whiskey. Making his getaway in Finkel's Honda, he picked up a Navy buddy in Oxnard on his way to Helena.
Of the new details that emerged in Stockwell's testimony, most absurd to Lloyd was the self-defense claim. The middle-aged Finkel suffered from a chronic bad back, weighed in at 5 feet 6 inches and 130 pounds and, unlike his 21-year-old killer, had no violent history. Stockwell, fresh out of military training, towered over Finkel by 4 inches and 40 or 50 pounds. "Have you ever noticed Finkel gets more aggressive and he [Stockwell] gets more passive with each subsequent version?" Lloyd asked the jury, which heard Stockwell offer police conflicting stories during taped interrogations.
Detective Montgomery said experience has taught him to spot a liar. :They tell you a story, but little things just don't add up," he said. Besides being a "last-minute addition," Montgomery said, there was no evidence of the mysterious second man. Stockwell initially said he was calm during the killing but told jurors he was in a "blind rage." Blood splatter contradicted Stockwell's account of where the killing occurred and the absence of orange juice containers discredited hi testimony about drinking. The lack of defensive wounds and the damage to Finkel's skull, particularly the fatal blow from behind, indicated there was no two-sided physical altercation. Moreover, prosecutors doubted Finkel would have tried to assault the bigger Stockwell without using his pistol, which was found, covered in dust, under the master bed.
Evidence indicated there was more to his relationship with Finkel than Stockwell would admit. He told police he saw an older, well-kept foreign car in the garage with the Cadillac, but Finkel's classic Mercedes had been taken to Los Angeles for repairs three days before Stockwell claimed to have been picked up. The Mercedes stayed in the shop until two weeks after the killing. Lloyd told the jury Stockwell could have known about the car unless he has been in the garage days earlier. She was also troubled by Stockwell's supposed need to wash his clothes when he arrived at Finkel's. "If the defendant left [Oxnard, where he was living] on the day Finkel picked him up, why did he need to wash his clothes? I'll tell you why. Because he had been [with Finkel] a few days," argued Lloyd. "They slept together. There was no third person."
In her final argument, the prosecutor urged jurors to resist blaming the victim. "Just because Finkel was gay doesn't make Stockwell's story true. This was not self-defense…He actually murdered a man because of his temper," said Lloyd, who prosecutes homicide cases in Orange County's beach communities. Alexander admitted there were "minor inconsistencies" in his client's story. "Just because he's a liar doesn't make him a murdered," he said in closing. "[Stockwell] felt he was violated. You'd do the same thing in that situation. Think about it."
For Stockwell, the jury's decision meant the difference between life in prison or imminent release. The jury voted initially 7-5 for a finding in the range of second degree murder, which carries a sentence of 15 years to life, but a vocal cadre of four or five refused to budge, sharing "enraging" experiences involving gay men and lesbians. One juror was adamant about ignoring evidence of Stockwell's psychopathic tendencies. Someone else sympathized with Stockwell's wife. Negligible compassion surfaced for Finkel. Nevertheless, the discussions were heated. At times, those outside the deliberating room heard several female jurors shouting at a Latino juror, one of two who held out for murder. After two days, the holdouts ceded on Nov. 8, 1995, and the jury returned a verdict of involuntary manslaughter, the lowest possible finding other than "not guilty." When the decision was read, Stockwell and Alexander hugged. Stockwell, who remained eerily dispassionate throughout most of the trial, smiled at jurors and said, "Thank you." Lloyd, shaken, sat stone-faced.
Jurors gathered outside the courthouse, where foreperson Arliss Ahrling, a retired teacher, announced, "We wanted everyone to feel good about what we've done." A few said the prosecution had failed to establish Stockwell's intention to murder Finkel, but others bought the defense story and put responsibility for Finkel's murder on Finkel himself. One juror, a housewife clutching a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soulto her chest, said the majority decided it was okay to defend oneself against homosexual advances by "whatever means necessary." Stockwell "suffered enough," said another juror, who later wrote to Judge James K. Turner asking for leniency. "I learned more about homosexuality than I cared to," she said. "Finkel was a pervert." When asked about the brutality of the killing and Stockwell's inconsistencies, she responded, "So what?" Bill Scannell, a car-enthusiast friend of Finkel's, left the courthouse shaking his head. "I guess there are some people who think it's okay to kill a gay person," he said.
A jubilant Alexander said, "A lot of times jurors have trouble sleeping the night after a verdict. But don't worry about what you did. Justice was served today." Minutes later, he offered to buy one juror's lunch. "That's the least I can do for you," he said. In the lobby of the DA's office, a subdued Lloyd found it hard to express her disappointment. "They clearly had no sympathy for Finkel." After a moment's reflection, she added, "Stockwell got away with murder."
During the Dec. 14 sentencing hearing, Alexander told Judge Turner that his client is "a well-oriented, decent individual" and that Finkel's "death probably did save lives – it's not like this guy was like straight people." Lloyd said she was offended by Alexander's remark and asked for the maximum term. Turner noted that he had received letters supporting leniency, including one from a Wisconsin policeman. He said he accepted Stockwell's scenario and declined Lloyd's request, sentencing Stockwell to time already served (two and a half years in county lockup) plus 54 days in prison.
One day earlier, another Orange County jury had convicted a man of second degree murder for accidentally killing a friend while driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. That a man faces 18 years to life in prison.
Stockwell plans to vacation in San Diego upon his release in mid-February and then move to Alabama.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.