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Jury Convicts Stepfather for 2nd Time of Murdering 2-Year-Old Girl in 1979

Times Staff Writer

A 35-year-old man from Orange was convicted of murder Thursday for the second time in connection with the 1979 death of his stepdaughter.

The seven-woman, five-man Superior Court jury deliberated nearly four days before returning the second-degree murder verdict against Leland Roy Dellinger.

Dellinger was being retried for the death of 2-year-old Jaclyn C. Zilles after the state Court of Appeal overturned his 1981 conviction last year.

Dellinger had married the child’s mother and was in the process of adopting Jaclyn when she died from a blow to the head. An autopsy also showed that there was cocaine in her stomach and liver.

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During the trial, Dellinger testified that he had been in the kitchen when he heard a noise and then found the girl on a landing at the bottom of a stairway.

Deputy Public Defender Don Ronaldson presented two experts, including Dr. Eldon Foltz, a neurosurgeon from UC Irvine Medical Center, who said a fall down the stairs could have caused the child’s injuries.

Dr. Richard Fukumoto, a pathologist, and former Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi testified for the prosecution that the blunt-force trauma did not appear to have been suffered in a fall.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles J. Middleton called the verdict “very satisfying” and said: “It’s a very tough case when certain evidence is withheld from the trial,” referring to the fact that the jury was not told that the infant had suffered a broken leg just weeks before her death.

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Ronaldson said he was “basically disappointed and surprised with the verdict, in as much as the medical evidence that was presented, at least from the defense’s point of view, seemed to back Leland’s description of what happened.”

Ronaldson said he plans to review the case between now and April 11, when Dellinger is scheduled to be sentenced, to decide whether he will ask for a new trial.

“I am satisfied, very much so,” said Diane Pena, the girl’s mother and Dellinger’s former wife. “I had been hoping he would be reconvicted. I really thank God that He saw fit to let the jurors see the truth as it was.

“I sort of have to speak for her since there is no one else to. I don’t want her to be forgotten. I don’t want her to be another statistic,” she said.

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In overturning Dellinger’s first conviction, the appellate court had questioned the qualifications of a biomedical engineer who acted as a prosecution witness and the validity of an experiment that she had conducted to show that the child had not died from a fall.


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