Kerry Michael Conley, a resident of Malibu's Point Dume, was found guilty Monday of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his former girlfriend and neighbor, Marsalee Nicholas.
Conley, 30, who sat quietly next to his attorneys during the two-week trial, cried as the verdict was read in Santa Monica Superior Court.
In finding Conley guilty of second-degree murder, the jury ruled that he intended to kill Nicholas but that the murder was not premeditated.
After the verdict, Conley, who had been free on $100,000 bail since shortly after the Nov. 30, 1983, shooting, was sent to the county jail to await sentencing May 13. He could be sentenced to 17 years to life in prison by Superior Court Judge Leslie W. Light.
During the trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael A. Wilson argued for a first-degree murder conviction. He said that Conley became jealous after he discovered that Nicholas, his girlfriend for three years, had been dating Eddie Erickson, a mutual friend who lived in Point Dume.
One of Conley's friends, Dainard Autrey, testified that Conley said, "I should blow her head off," after Conley had an argument with Nicholas on the telephone.
According to Wilson, Conley lured Nicholas to his residence, pointed the gun at her head and shot her.
But Jack Chegwidden, a lawyer representing Conley, argued that the shooting was an accident. He said that Conley was intoxicated and did not intend to shoot Nicholas. Chegwidden attempted to show that it was possible for Conley to grab his shotgun with one hand and discharge it unintentionally.
Chegwidden argued that Conley had simply been using a figure of speech after the telephone conversation with Nicholas.
Conley, who did not testify, had given authorities two versions of the shooting. First, he said that his .410-gauge shotgun had fallen off a shelf and gone off. Later he said that it went off accidentally when he grabbed it and pointed it in Nicholas' direction.
Sheriff's deputies said that when they arrived at Conley's residence, a small converted barn behind his parents' Boniface Drive home, they found him yelling hysterically and cradling the dying Nicholas in his arms.
The 21-year-old Nicholas, shot in the head, was taken to Westlake Hospital by paramedics and died within hours.
The families of both the victim and the defendant are longtime residents of the affluent, rural community of 2,000 to 3,000 people. Both sets of parents live nearby, on streets separated by a gully. All were in the courtroom during the trial.
After the verdict was read, Conley's mother, Audry Conley, began crying and tears came to the eyes of Arthur Conley, his father.
Nicholas' mother, Marcella Leach, also wept and she and Nicholas' father, Robert Leach, said that they were satisfied by the verdict. "It's difficult to say exactly how we've been feeling," he said. "Going to that trial was like going to a funeral every day."
Wilson also expressed satisfaction. "We anticipated a murder conviction," he said. "First degree was what I argued for, but it was somewhat reaching to think we would get more than second degree."
Conley's lawyers, Richard Tarlow and Chegwidden, said that they had expected the jury to reach a verdict of manslaughter and that they would probably file an appeal.
"It was a very difficult case for all those involved," Chegwidden said. "The irony is that they were all friends at one time."
Nicholas was an award-winning equestrian and model and was in her last quarter at the University of California, Santa Barbara, at the time of her death.