Everyone agreed it was an unusual event--a group of former jurors gathering for lunch to meet and toast the man to whom they had given a second chance in life.
For Rami K. Darwiche, who spent seven years in prison for a 1981 murder he claims he did not commit, it was a chance to personally thank the jury that acquitted him Tuesday at the end of his second trial.
The mood was festive. Many of the nine jurors who met for lunch Thursday at Shelly’s Restaurant in Santa Ana brought gifts, flowers or money for Darwiche, 32, and his 22-year-old wife, Tammie. Balloons, wishing the couple good luck, floated in the air and wine flowed like water.
Many of the jurors were anxious to learn more about the former Costa Mesa man--his family back in Lebanon, his prison marriage and his plans for the future. During the four-hour lunch, the conversations ranged from personal opinions about the witnesses to jokes about the evidence presented during the trial.
At the end, they exchanged telephone numbers and promised to keep in touch.
“It’s a celebration of life,” explained juror Pam Lilliard, 33, of Placentia. “There’s no doubt we did the right thing.”
In 1982, a six-man, six-woman jury convicted Darwiche of murder in the 1981 shooting death of Carl Lawson. Darwiche’s former roommate, Sam Monsoor, was later acquitted of Lawson’s murder by a separate jury. Monsoor left Orange County and was last known to be living in Palm Springs.
Lawson, a hair salon owner from Placentia, was fatally shot in front of a Costa Mesa restaurant on Harbor Boulevard. Neither Darwiche nor Monsoor, then 20, disputed being in the car with Lawson, but each blamed the other for the killing.
Darwiche was also convicted of robbing Lawson of about $40,000 worth of jewelry, which automatically elevated his sentence to life in prison without parole. He spent most of the time he served in Folsom Prison.
Lawson, an acquaintance of Monsoor, was shot with his own gun, which had not been found at the time of the first trial. Darwiche and Monsoor left immediately after the shooting and drove cross-country. But a short time later, Monsoor turned himself in. Darwiche was caught with some of Lawson’s jewelry attempting to re-enter the United States from Juarez, Mexico, 10 days after the shooting.
Darwiche said Thursday that if he had it to do over, he would have reported the crime. “But . . . I’m going to do my best not to be in that situation again.
“It was a bad time altogether. It wasn’t one little mistake; what I did wrong is that I didn’t see that something was going to happen, maybe because I trusted people too much. . . .”
All nine jurors at the lunch, paid for by defense attorney Jack M. Earley, said that by the end of the trial, they had no doubt of Darwiche’s innocence. The jury voted unanimously for his acquittal of first-degree murder and robbery charges. They did, however, convict him of being an accessory after the fact, a misdemeanor.
“I think he is a genuinely good person,” said juror Michelle McQuade, 21, of Huntington Beach. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and he was a victim of circumstances. In his previous trial, they just didn’t have all the evidence.”
Most jurors said they thought the prosecution failed to present a strong case. They said new evidence--particularly the gun found by a recreational diver off Newport Pier, exactly where Darwiche had said it had been thrown--convinced them of his innocence.
The former meat-packing plant manager said his goal now is to find a job and start over.
“I’ve been going through this for eight years. If I tell you I was mad, I was upset, I was angry, I don’t think it would be enough. There were all kinds of emotions you go through,” he said.
“I don’t want to cry about the past. . . . I have a responsibility right now and that’s my future.”
Darwiche said he feels no anger toward the jury that convicted him. But he said the political situation in the Middle East at that time may have affected them. “I don’t hold anything against them. . . . It was difficult being Lebanese at that time.”
While they don’t expect their new life together to be easy, the Darwiches said they believe they can make it work. They met when Tammie and a friend visited another inmate at Folsom. She and Darwiche began corresponding, and six months later, in April, 1984, they were married in a prison ceremony.
“We’ll be going through a lot of changes, but at least we have each other,” said Tammie, a waitress who has been sharing an apartment in Santa Ana with her sister.
“There are always a lot of risks, a lot of hardships. It’s been real trying for both of us. We’ve been married for 3 1/2 years, but it’s like we’re newlyweds.”
When Darwiche left Orange County Jail on Tuesday night, the first thing the couple did was drive to Laguna Beach so that Darwiche could walk barefoot in the sand, one of the things he said he missed most in prison.
Another thing he missed was dessert after a meal. When the waitress came around with the dessert tray Thursday, he could not decide, so he ordered everything. He tasted them, passed them around for others to sample and took the rest home with him.