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Why Jury Never Heard Meier’s Confession

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

It looked like a solid first-degree murder case, with firm evidence of premeditation.

Each of the three suspects confessed, telling identical stories about how they had met at a Canoga Park pizzeria to plan the killing, then executed the crime several hours later precisely as they had discussed.

But on the eve of the trial, the prosecutor discovered something in a casual conversation with the arresting officer that would weaken the case against the prime suspect.

The officer told Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward G. Feldman that Torran Lee Meier, who, along with two friends, was accused of killing his mother and attempting to kill his half brother, had asked after his arrest to speak to his grandmother.

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That simple request, which went unheeded, damaged the prosecution’s case against Meier, 17, of Canoga Park.

Because the sheriff’s deputies violated the juvenile’s right to talk to a relative before police questioning, Meier’s taped confession, which contained much of the state’s evidence of premeditation in the killing, was rendered inadmissible.

Meier, the first of the three defendants to go to trial, was found guilty last week of four manslaughter-related charges in the October incident.

Jurors in Van Nuys Superior Court rejected the prosecutor’s request for convictions on murder charges, saying Meier acted in a fit of rage, rather than in a deliberate manner, when he strangled his mother, put her body in a car, set the vehicle afire, then pushed it over a cliff in Malibu.

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Each defendant was charged with the murder of Shirley A. Rizk and the subsequent attempted murder of Meier’s half brother, Rory Rizk, 8, who, after witnessing the slaying, was placed in the car that was sent over the cliff. Rory escaped without serious injury.

In addition, the defendants were charged with two counts each of conspiracy to commit murder.

Members of the jury that heard Meier’s case for seven weeks said they sympathized with the youth’s troubled history with his mother and thought he never meant to murder his brother.

Meier was convicted of the lesser charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempted voluntary manslaughter and two counts of conspiracy to commit voluntary manslaughter. He faces up to 13 years in prison.

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Ironically, the prosecution’s case against the other defendants, who answered their friend’s call to help do away with his abusive mother, does not appear to be affected by the inadmissibility of Meier’s statement.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Feldman said he expects that he will be able to use their own statements against them, although generally confessions of one defendant cannot be used against another.

As a result, the alleged accomplices, Richard A. Parker, 24, of Antelope Valley, and Matthew A. Jay, 18, of Woodland Hills, face potentially harsher verdicts than Meier, attorneys in the case agree. They are to be tried separately, sometime after Aug. 1.

Life Term Possible

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If convicted of first-degree murder or either count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, the two could be sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.

“It’s very awkward for the prosecution to seek more than voluntary manslaughter” against the pair, said Jay’s attorney, Richard E. Smith.

Deputy Public Defender James H. Barnes, who represented Meier, downplayed the omission of his client’s statements to police, saying the evidence still pointed to a heat-of-passion killing rather than to premeditated murder. Numerous defense witnesses testified during the trial that Rizk constantly screamed at her son and that he finally cracked under the pressure of a lifetime of abuse. Meier did not testify.

“I think this was a very, very sick woman who was raising these kids,” Barnes said. “The jury had to decide his mental state at the time. I don’t think the statement would have made a difference. What was at issue was his state of mind.”

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Feldman acknowledges that Meier’s admissions to police may not have swayed the jury to find him guilty of first-degree murder because of the mountain of emotional evidence of Rizk’s mistreatment of her son. According to testimony, Rizk not only constantly berated her son but also tantalized him sexually.

But Feldman maintains that the tape would have strengthened the prosecution’s case on the charge of attempted murder of Rory Rizk, who testified against his half brother, and the two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. Conspiracy to commit first-degree murder carries the same penalty as first-degree murder.

Taped Statements

On the tape, which was made public after the verdicts were announced, Meier said he decided about 6 p.m. on Oct. 13 to kill his mother by strangling her with a rope and abandoning her body in a remote section along Malibu Canyon Road, in what he hoped would look like a car accident. In a straightforward account, he said that he enlisted the help of his two friends and that the three met at a pizza parlor to plan the killing.

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A few hours later, Parker and Jay climbed through Meier’s bedroom window and hid there while he called his mother into his room, Meier said. The three jumped her and took turns strangling her for 15 to 20 minutes, Meier said.

When Rory wandered into the room, the three decided that he, too, must be killed, Meier said on the tape. They first tried to feed him a poisoned sandwich and, when that effort failed, bound his hands and placed him next to his mother’s body in the car, Meier said. They then set the vehicle afire and pushed it over the cliff, Meier said.

Without the taped statement, however, Barnes was able to argue that Meier decided in the heat of passion to kill his mother.

In addition, Barnes told the jury that Meier never intended to harm Rory but staged what looked like a murder to dupe his two friends into thinking he had killed the only witness against them. Barnes suggested to the jury that Meier drove the car down the cliff and positioned it near the highway, then boosted his brother out the window to safety.

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That scenario was supported, Barnes said, by testimony from one witness who said that Rory had told her he thought he had been pushed out of the car. In addition, the car keys were found in Shirley Rizk’s lap, rather than in the ignition, which made it difficult to explain how Rory could have rolled down the power window to climb out of the car, Barnes said.

“I think we had an excellent case, based on the dispassionate viewing of the evidence,” prosecutor Feldman said. “But, without the tape, Barnes was able to throw up a smoke screen on the attempt to kill Rory.”

Jurors React

Several jurors, when told of some of Meier’s statements, said they might have viewed the charges differently.

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Barnes said, however, that he still believes that Meier did not intend to murder his brother.

“I think it’s really impossible to know exactly what happened,” Barnes said, adding, “I don’t know how to explain his contradictory statements.” He termed Meier’s recollection of the evening in question “very muddled and incomplete.”

Feldman was forced to undermine his own case when he discovered the day before testimony began that Meier had asked a deputy on the night of his arrest if he could call his grandmother. The deputy had passed on the information to his watch commander but the officers who later interviewed Meier were never informed of the request, Feldman said.

Feldman said ethics dictated that he present the information to Barnes and Judge George Xanthos, who presided over the case. He was then forced to concede that the confession was inadmissible.

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Had the tape been aired at trial and later discovered to have been illegally obtained, Feldman said, an appeals court would have had no choice but to reverse the conviction and order a new trial.


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