With a jury in its sixth day of deliberations and no verdict in sight, a Santa Ana man charged with killing former Orange County Supervisor Edison Miller's son pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Tuesday to avoid the possibility of life in prison without parole.
In exchange for the guilty plea from Richard J. Wetherell, 30, prosecutors agreed to drop an allegation that the killing occurred during a robbery. That agreement means Wetherell will be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Wetherell and co-defendant Arthur G. Goldner, 32, were convicted in 1984 in separate trials of the June 28, 1983, slaying of 26-year-old Patrick Miller. Goldner was sentenced to 25 years to life. Wetherell was given life without parole but won a new trial after the 4th District Court of Appeal threw out his confession.
After the agreement was reached Tuesday, jurors indicated that they probably would not have been able to reach a verdict because one juror was clinging to a vote for voluntary manslaughter while the other 11 wanted to convict Wetherell of first-degree murder.
That would have meant a mistrial and a third trial for Wetherell. Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick S. Geary said he was eager to avoid another trial but did not want to take a chance that Wetherell would receive a verdict of less than first-degree murder.
Wetherell's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Richard M. Aronson, said his client had offered to enter the same plea before trial, but Geary would not agree.
At the time of the plea agreement Tuesday morning, the lawyers knew only that there was one holdout juror. They did not know any other details of the deliberations.
The primary witness against Wetherell and Goldner was Diana Peters, the victim's girlfriend. The three men had met at a bar and returned to the home she shared with Miller. She said they were making so much noise that she ended up taking her two children somewhere else to spend the night.
When she returned later that day, she found Miller tied up in a bedroom, surrounded by blood. He had been severely beaten and strangled. Miller's truck, furniture, a rug, a shotgun, and jewelry were missing.
Wetherell was approached by Costa Mesa police later that day after someone tipped them that he had talked about the crime to an employee at a moving company where he and Goldner worked.
Wetherell confessed, but the appellate court ruled that his confession had been obtained by coercion by two Costa Mesa police investigators.
Superior Court Judge James K. Turner, after accepting Wetherell's guilty plea Tuesday, asked the lawyers: "Now, gentlemen, what do we tell the jurors?"
But instead of being upset that the decision had been taken out of their hands, most of the jurors were relieved that they could go home.
"I've had four parking tickets, and my car was ripped off since I've been on this jury," said Laurie Cruz of Santa Ana. "I'm just glad it's over."
Since the first day of deliberations, the jury had been split 11 to 1, several jurors said afterward.
The holdout juror was Maria Francis of Anaheim, who believed Wetherell's testimony that he and Goldner had reacted to Miller's pulling a gun on them.
"It wouldn't matter how many facts we gave her in an argument on something, she'd just say, "Well, I think. . . .' She would never look at the evidence," said jury foreman Bill Christie of Los Alamitos.
But Francis countered that other jurors turned the deliberations into a shouting match.
"Some of them were more interested in insulting me than looking at the case," she said.
Judge Turner praised the jurors. "It's obvious you have worked your heads off over this case," he said.
Former Supervisor Miller, who was in court when Wetherell pleaded guilty, said later that he wanted a sentence of life without parole for Wetherell but was glad that his family would not have to endure another trial.
"It would have been rough going through another year of this, especially for Diana," Miller said. "I think justice has been served, under the circumstances."