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2nd Defendant Found Guilty in Woman’s Murder

Times Staff Writer

A Laguna Beach man whose co-defendant has already been sentenced to die in the gas chamber for the death of a young Mission Viejo woman was found guilty of second-degree murder Wednesday after eight days of jury deliberations.

The verdict against David Leitch, the victim’s 26-year-old boyfriend, surprised the judge and prosecutor, both of whom said they expected a first-degree murder conviction with a finding of special circumstances that would have led to a penalty-trial phase.

The jurors not only rejected the prosecution’s request for a finding of special circumstances of rape and robbery, they discarded first-degree murder, which carries a penalty of 25 years to life in prison. Second-degree murder carries a penalty of 15 years to life, but officials in the case said Leitch will probably be out of prison by the time he is 30.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Jacobs contended that Leitch was the planner of the Sept. 12, 1981, slaying of Ginger Fleischli, whose body was found in a shallow grave near the El Toro Marine base, and that his co-defendant, Tommy Thompson, killed her on Leitch’s orders. Thompson, now 30, was convicted two years ago and sentenced to death by the jury. He is at San Quentin on Death Row, pending appeal.

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Jacobs did not try to hide his bitter disappointment from the jurors when they talked with him outside the courtroom after the verdict.

“It bothers me he didn’t get the same sentence that Thompson got,” Jacobs told the jurors. “If this wasn’t a planned killing, I don’t know what is. I think Mr. Leitch is in there laughing at us right now.”

Leitch’s mother, Shirley Leitch, and other family members and supporters left the courtroom in tears, but Shirley Leitch said they were mostly tears of relief.

Mother’s Reaction

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“We had hoped for better, but we are so relieved that it wasn’t worse,” she said. “We’ll take what we got.”

Leitch’s attorney, Ronald Kreber, had asked for a verdict of accessory to murder.

Several jurors, both men and women, spoke afterward with Shirley Leitch.

“We just did the best we could with the evidence we had,” one woman juror told her. “I hope you know that.” The defendant’s mother hugged and thanked her.

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Leitch, who has been in jail all but a short time since the killing, is probably relieved at the verdict, his mother said.

It was the longest jury deliberation in an Orange County murder case this year, but the jury foreman, Harold F. Schultz of Fullerton, said the jurors were so engrossed in their considerations that it didn’t seem long to them.

Attorneys had speculated it might have been a hung jury, but Schultz said that was never the case.

“We just wanted to go through everything very carefully,” he said. “That led to a lot of different scenarios about what happened.”

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Last Seen With Defendants

Leitch and Thompson were arrested on their return from Mexico a week after Miss Fleischli’s body was found on Sept. 14, 1981. She had been last seen alive leaving a Laguna Beach bar with Leitch and Thompson.

Thompson testified at his own trial that he had had sex with the young woman and had fallen asleep and that she was gone when he woke up. Thompson also testified that he thought he was being framed by Leitch.

Leitch did not testify at his own trial. His family said later he had helped Thompson after the killing because Thompson had threatened him.

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But to Jacobs it was Leitch, not Thompson, who wanted the woman dead, even though prosecutors believed Thompson was the one who stabbed her to death.

Jacobs produced witnesses who said Leitch was upset with Miss Fleischli because he wanted to get back together with his ex-wife and Miss Fleischli was getting in the way. Also, an acquaintance of the two defendants testified that they had stepped outside the apartment while Miss Fleischli remained inside, which Jacobs said meant the two men were planning her death.

Miss Fleischli, who was 20, was found with her clothes torn and her purse missing. There were numerous bruises and marks on her wrists, which appeared to be from handcuffs. An autopsy found she had been stabbed five times and died of a stab wound to the ear. There was also physical evidence that the young woman’s body had been transported to the grave site in Leitch’s car.

“It’s not just one thing; you have to put it all together to see that this was a planned murder,” Jacobs told the jurors.

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Jurors’ Theories of Crime

After the verdict, one juror told Jacobs, “We thought it was possible the killing was an instantaneous reaction.” Jacobs shrugged in disagreement. One juror tried to console Jacobs by telling him that several jurors shared his view the first several days of deliberation.

“It was a two-man party,” Jacobs answered. “Mr. Leitch deserves to be on Death Row with his partner.”

Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald later said the verdict had surprised him.

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“I thought there was sufficient evidence to go into a penalty trial,” Fitzgerald said, referring to evidence of first-degree murder and special circumstances of rape and robbery. “But it was a very difficult case for the jurors to analyze.”

Fitzgerald added he thought Leitch’s youthful appearance may have influenced jurors to believe he wasn’t someone who should go to Death Row.

Fitzgerald scheduled Leitch’s sentencing for July 19.


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