Attorneys for Marine Sgt. Joseph L. Thomas, accused of beating his wife to death with a tire iron, Wednesday called the government’s star witnesses liars and chided prosecutors for what they called a “total lack” of physical evidence.
The comments by Thomas’ military defense team came as his court-martial began at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The trial is expected to last at least a month. If convicted, Thomas, 28, faces the death penalty.
Prosecutor Capt. Bradley N. Garber told the jury that the government would prove that Thomas bludgeoned his wife, Melinda Jean Thomas, 24, and then faked a traffic accident to collect on a $50,000 life insurance policy that he had taken out for his new wife months before. He remarried shortly after her death.
Government agents arrested Thomas on April 5 and charged him with killing his wife on Dec. 10, 1987, as she lay on the couple’s water bed in their apartment at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, splattering blood over the bed and walls. Prosecutors say Thomas and his close friend, Lance Cpl. Mitchael Nelson, 24, put the body in the trunk of a car they had rented and drove that car and the couple’s Suzuki Samurai to the mountainous Ortega Highway near the border of Orange and Riverside counties. They allegedly strapped the body in with the seat belt and pushed the car over the steep embankment.
At the preliminary hearing, Nelson testified that he went to the bottom of the hill and set the car afire.
An early morning hunter discovered the burning car and called police.
Defense lawyer Maj. Mark Stevens said Wednesday that although he is not ascribing their motives, government witnesses have lied in testimony and in sworn statements.
Only four of the dozens of witnesses that the government will call in the trial have any “real significance in the case,” Stevens said. “We will show that every one of them has lied under oath. Maybe we can’t give reasons why they lied, but they have lied under sworn testimony.”
Stevens was particularly harsh on Nelson, to whom the government granted immunity to testify. Stevens said Nelson’s testimony shows that he “did everything but strike the blow.” Nelson, Stevens said, helped dispose of the body, drove the car over the cliff, set it afire and got rid of the evidence.
But, Stevens said, Nelson’s testimony contradicts physical evidence. For example, he said, Nelson testified that he saw Thomas beat his wife to death with a tire iron on one side of the bed. But spots of human blood were found on the other side of the room, Stevens said. And Nelson’s version of the events after the murder could not have possibly taken place because there was not enough time, Stevens said.
Stevens said Nelson’s story has changed three times: First he did not know anything about the murder, then he was in the other room when it took place and finally he watched Thomas commit the murder.
Stevens said the government does not have the tire iron that Thomas supposedly used, nor did investigators ever find any trace of blood in the trunk of the rental car.
Months passed before Naval Investigative Service agents began collecting crucial evidence in the case, because the Riverside County coroner’s office ruled the death a suicide. The office changed the cause of death to homicide after NIS agents stormed into Nelson’s Santa Ana apartment and arrested him in the murder of Melinda Thomas. He later accepted immunity in exchange for his testimony against Thomas.
The jury is composed of four enlisted men and five officers. The rank ranges from lieutenant colonel to staff sergeant.
The defense team, composed of Stevens and Maj. Renee Renner, is requesting that the judge, Col. Frank Holder, allow the jury to take a nighttime trek on the Ortega Highway to illustrate how long and difficult it is. The prosecution plans to take the jury to the Thomases’ bedroom.
Although Thomas lived at the Tustin base, he worked at the nearby El Toro air station.