In a moment reminiscent of the old "Perry Mason" television show but rarely seen in real courtrooms, the attorney for a man accused of murder revealed last week in Superior Court that his client's mother had confessed to the slaying.
"The defense will prove that another person has confessed to being the true murderer in this case," defense attorney Rayford Fountain said Thursday in his opening statement to the jury hearing the murder trial of John Iner Botting. "Ladies and gentlemen, the victory for my client is hollow because the person who confessed to the crime is LaVerne Dennis, my client's very own mother."
Botting is accused of the 1984 strangulation death of Iner Alvin Thor, his mother's 78-year-old brother-in-law, to collect money from the man's estate. Fountain told jurors that he has a taped confession from Botting's mother.
At the request of attorneys for both sides, Judge Lillian Stevens recessed the proceedings until Monday to give Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry Green time to review a copy of the tape. The tape was not played in court.
Admissible in Court
Dennis, 58, was present in the courthouse, but refused to comment.
Her attorney, Robert J. Brown, confirmed the existence of a "taped statement," saying, "The only thing I can tell you is that there is one and it (the statement) is on tape." Brown said he believes that the taped statement is admissible as evidence.
In a statement that Fountain delivered to reporters Thursday, Botting said: "I was stunned by the whole thing. I desperately wanted the truth to come out, but I'm very sorry that it came out the way it did."
Botting was tried once before on the same charges but the trial ended in a hung jury last spring. The 32-year-old former auto restorer has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
Fountain said in an interview that Dennis approached him in the courthouse before a pretrial hearing for her son on Nov. 12 and told him she wanted to confess to the killing of Thor. Fountain, a lawyer for 21 years, said it was the first time he had heard of a third party making a confession after a trial had begun.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Fountain said.
Fountain said he decided to withhold the confession from the prosecution until the trial had begun because "once a jury is impaneled, then the matter has to be resolved quickly. Something's got to happen."
Green downplayed the significance of the purported confession, saying, "It's not the common thing (but) I can recall others confessing to things when charges were pending."
Bailiff Roger Mauck said the case is "right out of Perry Mason."
Prosecutor Green declined to discuss how he will proceed with the case, but noted that "other options could come into play, depending on the credibility of the evidence."
Fountain said the two basic options available are proceeding with the trial or dismissing the charges against Botting and arresting his mother.
Judge Stevens refused to comment on the turn of events.
Strangled With a Rope
In the prosecution's opening statement, Green said that Botting used a rope to strangle Thor. The prosecution said Botting hoped to benefit from a will that he allegedly forged, making himself the beneficiary of most of Thor's estate. The estate consisted primarily of Thor's Del Vina Street house. In addition to murder, Botting has been charged with forgery and attempted grand theft.
Thor was found dead the morning of July, 8, 1984, in his house, which he shared with Botting and Dennis. Dennis cared for the ailing man, who had terminal cancer, diabetes and other illnesses. Botting was arrested later that month and charged with the murder of Thor, who was his uncle by marriage.
Botting's first trial ended in with a hung jury, divided 11 to 1 for conviction on the murder charge and 10 to 2 on the other charges, Fountain said.
Botting is being tried under the special circumstances provision of murder for financial gain, and if convicted he could receive the death penalty or life in prison without possibility of parole, authorities said. Because special circumstances are alleged, Botting has been held without bail for more than 1 1/2 years, Fountain said.