New Ordeal for Victim’s Mother: Retrial of Murder Case Ordered
Since the murder of her daughter in Irvine in 1979, life for Maxine Anderson has focused on punishing the killer and putting the tragedy behind her.
“At least, he wasn’t going to get anybody else once he went to prison,” Anderson said Thursday from her home in Salt Lake City of the man accused of killing her daughter.
But Anderson’s personal anguish is not over.
The man convicted of the rape and murder of 22-year-old Savannah Anderson has won his bid for another day in court.
In an opinion released this week, the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana reversed the murder conviction and ordered a new trial for Robert Lloyd Sellers.
Although the court called the bludgeoning and strangulation death of Anderson “a most heinous crime,” it held that jurors had been improperly instructed on the law regarding rape and that this had improperly influenced the verdict on the murder charge.
“I am completely shocked. To have this reversed on a tiny, little . . . nit-picking thing in the law for this hideous crime is just shocking,” the victim’s mother said.
Sellers, a security guard in the Irvine apartment complex where Anderson lived, admitted being obsessed with the 22-year-old executive secretary. Sellers told police that he went to Anderson’s apartment the night of May 13, 1979, where he tried to rape her, hitting her repeatedly when Anderson resisted him.
Later that night, when Anderson was already dead, Sellers said, he returned to the apartment and raped the victim.
But the appellate court ruled that rape can only occur while the victim is alive, thus overturning the sentence of life without parole that was based on a murder conviction and a finding of special circumstances. Without the rape allegation, Sellers could have received a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole, attorneys said.
The prosecutor had argued that Anderson had been raped twice, during her struggle with her killer and after she was dead. The appellate court ruled that there was only evidence that she was raped the second time the intruder came to her apartment.
“Unfortunately, the failure to properly instruct on rape tainted the first-degree murder verdict as well,” Presiding Justice Harmon G. Scoville wrote in the appellate court opinion.
Handy Horiye, a San Diego attorney who handled Sellers’ appeal, said Thursday that the law on rape was clear and that the reversal of the case had been correct. Horiye handled the appeal because Jennifer Keller, Sellers’ trial lawyer, now works as a staff attorney for the court that overturned her former client’s conviction.
“You cannot rape a dead body,” Horiye said.
Richard L. King, the prosecutor, who also voiced shock over the reversal, said he had asked the state attorney general’s office to have the Court of Appeal review the case again.
“In the alternative, we would like the state Supreme Court to review the decision,” King said.
“He did it twice. That’s our position. There was evidence of both (instances of rape),” King said. “(Sellers) left and came back to satisfy what he had started.”
King also criticized the appellate court for giving Sellers “the benefit in what was a savage sexual assault on a victim who resisted with a massive defense.” Court records showed that Savannah Anderson suffered at least 30 blows to her arms and upper body while trying to fend off her attacker.
Sellers, 31, has been incarcerated at Folsom State Prison since his conviction. Horiye said he expects Sellers to remain in prison while awaiting the new trial.
Irvine police had listed the case as an unsolved murder for five years, during which Sellers remained free. But in 1984 the case was reopened to see if it might be linked to a serial killer in Texas. In reviewing the case, Officer Scott Cade noticed that one of Sellers’ prints matched one taken from Savannah Anderson’s apartment.
Maxine Anderson, the mother who was present at the trial and the appeal hearing, is convinced that Sellers should never be free again.
“He showed what kind of man he was. I believe in my heart this man will not go free. But it (the appellate ruling) is still a jolt,” she said.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.