A Costa Mesa man who spent nearly seven years serving a prison sentence of life without parole for a murder conviction has been acquitted at a new trial and left the Orange County Jail a free man.
Jurors did find Rami K. Darwiche guilty of being an accessory after the fact to the fatal shooting of a Placentia hairdresser in 1981. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of one year, and since the 32-year-old Lebanese immigrant already had served considerably more time behind bars, a Superior Court judge ordered him released from custody.
Jurors not only believed that Darwiche was innocent of the 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 Tuesday in Superior Court Judge Leonard H. McBride’s courtroom in Santa Ana.
As he was released from jail Tuesday night into the arms of his 22-year-old wife, Tammie, Darwiche said he was eager 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 incredible, too.
Darwiche’s co-defendant, Sam Monsoor, then 20, already had been acquitted by another 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, shooting death and robbery of Carl Lawson, a 31-year-old hair salon owner, in front of a Costa Mesa restaurant on Harbor Boulevard.
Each Blamed the Other
Neither disputed that they were in the car with Lawson. But they blamed each other for the killing.
Witnesses testified that they saw the two men beating the victim while he was in his car.
At Darwiche’s first trial, the jury convicted him not only of first-degree murder, but of the theft of the victim’s jewelry. That elevated his sentence to an automatic life in prison without parole. Darwiche was sent to Folsom Prison to await 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.
Although 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.
Darwiche’s first jury was unsure whether he had fired the shots that killed the victim or 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 did not prosecute Darwiche at the second trial. That task fell to Deputy Dist. Atty. Mel Jensen, who could not be reached for comment.
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 was working at a meatpacking house in Palm Springs, and was 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 immediately fled the state. Shortly afterward, Monsoor turned himself in. Darwiche was caught with some of Lawson’s jewelry attempting to cross the border back into the United States from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, about 10 days later.
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 off the Newport Beach Pier by a 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.
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.