The murder convictions of an ex-stripper and her lover were overturned Monday when a divided Nevada Supreme Court found fault with the trial that sent the two to prison in the drugging and killing of former Las Vegas casino executive Ted Binion.
Sandy Murphy, a topless dancer, and Rick Tabish, a trucking contractor, were convicted three years ago of drugging and then suffocating Binion in a conspiracy to loot the $50-million estate of the former Horseshoe Casino executive.
Prosecutors said Murphy two-timed Binion with Tabish, then plotted with Tabish to steal Binion's $8-million fortune of silver hidden in an underground vault in the Nevada desert.
The court ruled 4 to 3 that Murphy and Tabish should face a new trial on the murder, robbery, burglary and larceny counts the two were convicted of on May 19, 2000.
The majority opinion upheld the conviction against Tabish for the July 1998 kidnapping, beating and extortion of Leo Casey, which was tried with the Binion murder case. Tabish wanted Casey to give up his interest in a gravel pit the two owned in Jean, Nev., prosecutors said.
In the 4-3 decision, Justice Bob Rose wrote that the reversal of the convictions in the Binion case was warranted by several facts, including that the trial judge did not separate the counts related to Casey from the other charges.
The prosecution had argued that the Casey counts were relevant in establishing a motive for killing Binion -- that Tabish wanted Binion's money to run the gravel pit by himself. The state maintains this rationale, Clark County Dist. Atty. Dave Roger said.
"Obviously, we are disappointed with the court's decision to reverse the conviction, but we will retry the defendants at the earliest opportunity," Roger said. "Our strategy during the first trial was obviously successful -- 12 jurors felt we had met the burden of proof."
Rose wrote that while there were similarities between the two victims and their deaths, "money and greed could be alleged as connections between a great many crimes and thus do not alone sufficiently connect the incidents."
The court found joining the two cases was "especially prejudicial" in Murphy's case. The opinion also said the inclusion of testimony from one of Binion's estate attorneys without properly limiting jury instructions compromised the case.
Attorney James Brown said in court that Binion called him the night before his death and said, "Take Sandy out of the will if she doesn't kill me tonight. If I'm dead, you'll know what happened."
Murphy, who received a minimum 22-year sentence, has always maintained her innocence. Herbert Sachs, one of her attorneys, said Monday that he would file a bail motion for his client as soon as possible.
Tabish will not be eligible for bail because of his convictions in the Casey case. He is serving a 25-year sentence.
The case attracted national attention as the story of greed, drugs and sex began to unravel after Binion's death on Sept. 17, 1998. That afternoon, an apparently hysterical Murphy called 911 to report her live-in boyfriend's death. At first, it was assumed that Binion, well-known as a heroin addict, had overdosed, a theory the defense argued for during the trial.
Justices Miriam Shearing and Bill Maupin filed dissents. Shearing said she agreed the murder and robbery charges should be reversed but that she would have upheld the other counts. Maupin, along with Justice Myron Leavitt, said he would have upheld all convictions.