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Jewel thief, 83, should be judged on evidence, not past, lawyer says

An attorney for Doris Payne -- the 83-year-old notorious jewelry thief now facing charges in Riverside County -- said evidence should be the focus of his client's latest case, rather than her history.

Payne pleaded not guilty Tuesday to one count each of second-degree burglary and grand theft amid allegations that she stole a $22,500 diamond-encrusted ring from a Palm Desert jewelry store. One of her attorneys, Guadalupe Valencia -- who represented Payne in a 2011 San Diego County case -- told The Times that onlookers should "hold judgment" on the octogenarian.

"She obviously became a pretty famous person and it's easy for people to say, 'Hey, she was in my store and something went missing,'" Valencia said. "I think what we need to do is take a step back and look at the evidence and not judge her on her past convictions but actually whether she did something this time.

"Just because she has been convicted in the past and stolen in the past doesn't mean she did it this time," he continued.

Payne, whose decades-long history of thievery stretched across the globe and inspired a documentary, was arrested last week after she allegedly stole a ring from a jewelry store on El Paseo, Palm Desert's luxurious shoppers' row.

Jeweler Raju Mehta told The Times he thought the well-dressed, articulate women fit right in with his customers when she walked in the store Oct. 21.

She tried on necklaces and a ring, Mehta said, saying she had lost her jewelry and had a $42,000 insurance check to spend. When she left the store, workers discovered the ring was missing.

"She knows what she's doing," Mehta said. "I've been doing retail for a very long time and it's never happened that someone stole right in front of me."

Police say Mehta was the latest in a long line of unsuspecting victims duped by Payne, who once described her profession in a court document as "jewel thief." Her arrest record spans the United States, and authorities said she's also stolen expensive diamonds in Paris, Milan, London and Tokyo.

A byproduct of her unwavering devotion to thievery is a notoriety that now borders on fame. She has long been known to law enforcement, has been featured on TV, in newspapers and had her story told in a documentary. There has been talk of Halle Berry starring in a movie about her life.

Her most recent conviction came in 2011 for stealing a ring in San Diego and another in Santa Monica. She was released from prison this summer.

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Twitter: @katemather | Google+
kate.mather@latimes.com

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