A Costa Mesa man who has spent nearly seven years serving a prison sentence of life without parole for a murder conviction was acquitted Tuesday at a new trial, and left Orange County Jail a free man.
Jurors not only believed that Rami K. Darwiche, 32, was not guilty of a 1981 murder, they invited him and his attorney, Jack M. Earley, for a celebration lunch later this week.
Darwiche was shaking and tears came to his eyes when the jury verdict was read in Superior Court Judge Leonard H. McBride’s courtroom in Santa Ana.
As he was released from jail on Tuesday night into the waiting arms of his 22-year-old wife, Darwiche said he was anxious to get on with his life. “It’s been a long time. I’ve lost a lot of time, but I’m just glad I’m free.”
“This is all pretty unbelievable for him right now,” Earley said. “To even think about ever being free after facing life without parole is unreal.”
Prosecutors found the verdict pretty incredible too.
Darwiche’s co-defendant, Sam Monsoor, already had been acquitted by a separate jury.
“A man is dead, and two juries have now found that nobody killed him,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. John D. Conley, prosecutor at Darwiche’s first trial.
Darwiche and his roommate, Monsoor, were charged with the April 13, 1981, murder and robbery of Carl Lawson, 31, a hair salon owner from Placentia who was fatally shot in front of a Costa Mesa restaurant on Harbor Boulevard.
Neither disputed being in the car with Lawson. But each blamed the other for the killing.
Witnesses testified that they saw the two men beating the victim while he was in his car.
Monsoor, who was 20 at the time, was acquitted in a separate trial. He claimed that he was shocked to see Darwiche attacking the victim in the car.
Darwiche’s jury convicted him--not only of first-degree murder but of robbing the victim of his jewelry. That elevated his sentence automatically to life in prison without parole.
Darwiche was sent to Folsom Prison to await results of his appeal.
The 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana upheld his conviction in 1984. But new state Supreme Court rules on jury instructions under then-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird forced the 4th District to review its decision in 1986.
Though it still had an option to uphold the verdict, this time the appellate court reversed Darwiche’s conviction, agreeing that the jury instructions were in error.
Fourth District Justice Edward J. Wallin said the jury’s verdict indicates that sometimes it is important to scrutinize a previous verdict even on something like jury instructions, which might seem like a technicality to the public.
“When our society reaches the point where we do not carefully review and consider our decisions, we’ll be in sad shape,” Wallin said.
Darwiche’s first jury was unsure whether it was he who shot Lawson or whether he was guilty of murder by “aiding and abetting” the actual killer. The appellate court found that the instructions given the first jury should have said that a murder conviction under the “aiding and abetting” theory required a finding of “intent to kill.”
Prosecutor Conley said most of the evidence pointed to Monsoor as the shooter. But he contended that Darwiche was equally responsible for the crime.
Conley said he was “chagrined” that Darwiche had won a new trial, but “it was just par for the course with Rose Bird on the Supreme Court. I never really thought we would have any problem convicting him again.”
Conley did not prosecute Darwiche at the second trial. That task fell to Deputy Dist. Atty. Mel Jensen, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Earley credits a private investigator, Toni Bovee, with persuading him to take Darwiche’s case.
“She really believed he was innocent, and she made a believer out of me,” Earley said.
Bovee, who also was present when Darwiche was freed from jail, said she thought a change in political climate may have helped him this time around.
“This is justice,” she said. “Eight years ago, there was a lot of political unrest with the Lebanese terrorists and I believe Rami was blamed.”
Darwiche, the son of a college professor in his native Lebanon, had come to the United States about four years before his arrest. He worked at a meat-packing plant in Palm Springs before being transferred to become the evening manager at the company’s Orange County facility.
A co-worker who knew he was moving to Orange County said his son, Sam Monsoor, was looking for a roommate, and Darwiche moved in with him.
Shortly after that, the two went to the restaurant with Lawson, who was an acquaintance of Monsoor’s. Lawson was shot with his own gun.
Monsoor and Darwiche left immediately and began traveling across the country. But shortly after the shooting, Monsoor turned himself in. Darwiche was caught with some of Lawson’s jewelry attempting to re-enter the United States from Juarez, Mexico, about 10 days later.
Earley told the jurors that Darwiche had no choice but to leave with Monsoor.
“In a sense he was married to Monsoor,” Earley said Tuesday after the verdict. “Monsoor was the only guy who could clear him.”
Darwiche testified at both his trials.
Earley believes one difference may have been new evidence at the second trial, Lawson’s gun, which had been found by a recreational diver.
Earley said tests showed the gun had been fired twice--as Darwiche claimed--and not five times, as some of the witnesses had said. Also, the gun was found exactly where Darwiche had said Monsoor threw it. Earley believed that gave his client credibility with the jury.
Judge McBride said Tuesday that he could find no fault with the jury’s verdict.
“It was a very difficult case for prosecutors; it happened so long ago that the memories of some of their witnesses were faulty,” the judge said. “But also, Darwiche was a very personable young man. I can see why the jury might have believed him.”
One person convinced of his innocence is his wife, Tammie Darwiche, who married him three years ago while he was a Folsom inmate. She had met him when she went with a friend to visit another inmate.
“I was scared to death; my parents were against” the marriage, she said. “Now I’m glad I did it. He is a very good man.”
Tammie Darwiche was waiting for her husband when he was freed from Orange County Jail. As her husband came down the jail stairs, clad in slacks and sport coat, she became anxious, began to cry and rushed toward him.
“Relax, this is great,” he exclaimed before hugging her.
Tammie Darwiche said earlier that her husband told her the first thing he wanted to do upon his release is go to the ocean and walk on the beach.
Earley said he has received more than a dozen letters from guards and other officials at Folsom on Darwiche’s behalf.
Prosecutor Conley urges caution for anyone who might be critical of the second jury for the acquittal.
“The facts before that jury may have been different from the first case,” Conley said.
Earley said Darwiche still has many supporters at the meat-packing plant where he worked, and should be able to gain employment.
Earley said he met with most of the jurors after the verdict was read, and they invited Darwiche and Earley to join them for lunch on Thursday. Earley said he accepted on behalf of his client.