3rd murder trial begins for man accused of hurling daughter from cliff

3rd murder trial begins for man accused of hurling daughter from cliff
Attorney Aron Laub, left, listens with his client, Cameron Brown, as the murder trial gets underway. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

For the third time, trial has begun for a father accused of leading his daughter on what prosecutors say was a "dangerous hike" in Rancho Palos Verdes 15 years ago and flinging her off a steep, jagged cliff into the ocean.

Two previous juries deadlocked over whether Cameron Brown, now 53, intentionally threw his 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, over the 120-foot cliff on Nov. 8, 2000.

In a downtown L.A. courtroom Wednesday, Brown — a former baggage handler for American Airlines who has long maintained his innocence — occasionally leaned over and whispered to his attorney, Aron Laub. When a prosecutor projected a picture of the cliff during his opening statements, Brown stared at the screen for several seconds.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum told jurors that Brown killed his daughter to avoid paying child support and to hurt the victim's mother. The prosecutor said the couple had been embroiled in a bitter custody battle.

"Lauren didn't slip and fall," Hum said. "This man hurled the child he never wanted off that cliff and to her death."

When Hum projected a picture of the young girl with a toothy smile and wispy hair wearing white tennis shoes and a lavender shirt, a couple of jurors nodded. Hum said a teacher would testify about how the girl used to cry and beg to stay at school on days when Brown came to pick her up. An expert in "the study of falls" is also expected to testify.

In his opening statement, Laub said the girl's death was a tragic accident. He said his client did care about his daughter: He carried a picture of her in his wallet, and gave her dolls from his grandmother's prized collection.

"Two tragedies are about to unfold before you," Laub told jurors. The first is the little girl's death — an accident, he said. The second, Laub said, is the prosecution of Brown and the unfair portrayal of him as a murderer.

The investigation into the girl's death "was biased" from the start, Laub said, telling jurors that the initial interview of his client wasn't recorded.

"It would be great if that was on tape," he said, shaking his head.

Brown's first trial ended in 2006 with two jurors voting to convict him of first-degree murder, eight voting for second-degree murder and two favoring manslaughter. In 2009, the jury split evenly between second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

As he did during the previous two trials, Hum told jurors that Brown never wanted a child and that he had urged the victim's mother, Sarah Key-Marer, to have an abortion. When she refused, Hum said that Brown threatened her. The prosecutor told jurors that Brown had told her, "What goes around comes around."

Key-Marer testified Wednesday about a memory of Brown from before their daughter's birth.

Once, while walking along a beach somewhere in Los Angeles County, he stopped and pointed at a cliff, Key-Marer said. Brown told her that two children had died there recently.

"It stuck in my mind," Key-Marer said.