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Ex-Teacher, After 2 Verdicts Voided, Gets 30 Years in Slaying of Wife

Times Staff Writer

A former Thousand Oaks schoolteacher whose supporters raised more than half a million dollars for his defense was sentenced Monday in Delaware to 30 years in prison for the 1976 slaying of his wife.

Robert David Hughes, 37, was twice convicted of strangling his wife, Serita Ann, but both verdicts were thrown out by the Delaware Supreme Court on appeal.

Although he has continued to assert his innocence, Hughes pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Sept. 24 rather than face a third trial.

Because he has served 4 1/2 years in prison, Hughes could be paroled in 3 1/2 years, Delaware authorities said.

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But Hughes’ attorney said that, because of the notoriety of the crime in Delaware, he doubts that Hughes will be freed after serving the minimum time.

“It’s a subjective process in this state,” attorney Gerald Street said. “I fear Bob may not be paroled the first time or two he comes up because of pressure on the parole board.”

Maximum Penalty

Hughes and Street had asked Superior Court Judge Robert O’Hara to sentence Hughes to time served, thereby releasing him immediately.

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But the Wilmington, Del., judge imposed the maximum penalty for manslaughter, terming it “one of the worst manslaughter cases to come up for sentencing,” wire services reported.

Before the sentencing, Lucille Bell, mother of the slain woman, made an impassioned speech in which she bitterly attacked Hughes, the reports said.

“Bob Hughes had everything anybody in the world wants: a wife, children, a good home and a good job,” she said, glaring at her former son-in-law.

The reports said she handed O’Hara a photograph of her daughter, saying the young woman was “slaughtered by this man here.”

Despite Hughes’ guilty plea, his supporters among the large Lutheran community in Thousand Oaks have continued to insist that he is innocent.

‘Believe in His Innocence’

“There is no way I can prove it, but I believe in his innocence. And so do a great many of us,” said Pastor Willis Moerer of Ascension Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, where Hughes taught the middle grades before his first conviction.

Hughes, a mathematics teacher, was arrested on a charge of murder within hours after telling police that he had discovered his wife’s body in the driveway of the couple’s Milford, Del., home.

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But police released him within a week for lack of evidence.

Seeking to make a “clean break with the past,” Hughes moved to Thousand Oaks in June, 1977, with his two sons, Chad, now 11, and Brock, now 9.

A year later, the case was reopened in Delaware.

On Dec. 4, 1978, while teaching at Ascension Lutheran School, Hughes was arrested on a murder warrant.

Two months later, a Delaware jury convicted him on the murder charge and he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Hughes’ supporters promptly began raising funds to hire former Senate Watergate Committee counsel Sam Dash to appeal the case to the Delaware Supreme Court.

Hughes’ first conviction was thrown out on the grounds that prosecutors made prejudicial and erroneous statements to the jury.

To the dismay of supporters, a second trial in July, 1982, resulted in another first-degree murder conviction.

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In February, that conviction also was thrown out by the Delaware high court because the jury had become aware of the first conviction and of unconfirmed reports that Hughes had failed a lie-detector test.

As was the case after the first verdict was voided, Hughes returned to California to a joyous welcome from supporters, including many of his former Ascension students.

Clarence Hughes, father of the convicted man, said in a telephone interview Monday that his son “took the sentence real hard. We all had hoped he would be coming back to California with us.”

House May Be Sold

The elder Hughes, who followed his son to Thousand Oaks, said that, of the $500,000 raised in his son’s defense, $135,000 was lent by 32 people “who have waited years to be repaid, so I think now we will have to sell Bob’s home to satisfy the debts.”

The case attracted media attention in Delaware and supporters in California because of the seeming normalcy of the Hughes family.

They lived in a modest suburban home and were reported to have been model parents.

Neighbors could not recall having heard the couple argue.

Hughes’ wife, a registered nurse, was killed on the couple’s eighth wedding anniversary.

No motive was ever suggested in court for the slaying, although prosecutors said they assumed the couple had argued beforehand.


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