Doubting the credibility of the prosecution's two star witnesses, an Orange County jury on Monday found San Francisco accountant Richard Dale Wilson innocent of charges that he murdered a Manhattan Beach man 4 years ago to avenge the death of his socialite fiancee.
The 47-year-old Wilson, who let out a huge sigh of relief as the jury returned the verdict, embraced his two attorneys and, jubilant, he shouted to jurors and court personnel as he left the courtroom: "It's the last you'll see of me!"
Freed of the legal problems that have dominated his life for the last year, Wilson said he plans to return to his tax-accounting practice and marry his fiancee, legal secretary Joyce Seymour of San Francisco.
The verdict, reached after two days of deliberations in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas, ended a 4-year saga that began with the 1983 beating death in Beverly Hills of San Francisco socialite Joan McShane Mills, Wilson's fiancee at the time.
Jeffrey Molloy Parker, 36, of Manhattan Beach was fatally shot in Costa Mesa in 1983, just 2 days before he was to stand trial on charges of murdering Mills, a prominent businesswoman and author, after a night of alleged drinking, drugs and sex. Prosecutors were stumped in the case for 3 years but, acting on an anonymous tip, charged Wilson last year with ambushing Parker and shooting him dead outside the home of Parker's mother.
But Wilson's defense attorneys, in a strong courtroom showing that drew praise from jurors in the 4-month trial, described the evidence as circumstantial and placed Wilson in San Francisco at the time that Parker was killed.
And the attorneys painted the prosecution's two key witnesses--Wilson's brother, Okel Wilson, and brother-in-law, Robert C. Hale--as liars and alcoholics. The two men testified that Wilson had admitted the killing to them.
The jury, finding the two witnesses' testimony "convoluted" and "tainted," saw no basis to find Wilson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, jury foreman John R. Straton Jr. of Mission Viejo said after the verdict.
The credibility of Okel Wilson and Hale "kind of fell apart" under tough cross-examination, juror Mark Beery of Newport Beach said.
A third juror, Ed Byrd of Yorba Linda, added: "We tried to build (prosecutor Douglas H.) Woodsmall's case and examine it piece by piece, and it just wasn't there."
Nonetheless, Woodsmall, an Orange County deputy district attorney, defended the strength of the evidence against Wilson and his reliance on the testimony of Okel Wilson and Hale, who were tarred by defense attorneys for apparent contradictions in their stories and for emotional and drinking problems.
"It doesn't help that they had those problems," a disappointed Woodsmall said after the verdict, "but they were the key witnesses so you had to put them on the stand." He did not indicate that the verdict would be appealed.
Defense attorney J. Tony Serra of San Francisco, in the brash style that has become his trademark, praised Woodsmall's tenacity but, after the verdict, questioned why the prosecutor had bothered in the first place to pursue what Serra considered a weak case.
"(Woodsmall) gave us all mirrors instead of evidence," Serra said. "Frankly, this case should have never been brought, and that's something he has to ponder in terms of his own motivations."
The defense attorneys considered their case so strong--and Serra's closing arguments so persuasive--that co-defender Joel W. Baruch went so far as to predict last week that the jury would have to deliberate only 1 day to find his client innocent.
The attorney was off by a day, and jurors indicated that their decision was at times a difficult one, given the complexity of the evidence. Straton, the foreman, said the first jury polling showed eight jurors in favor of acquittal before the final unanimous verdict by the 12-member panel.
Wilson's first reaction to reporters after the verdict was praise for the "brilliant" performance of Serra--the pony-tailed defender who was sometimes mistaken by spectators for the defendant.
Struggling to collect his thoughts, Wilson said: "I'm happy! I'm happy! . . . I'm in a daze."
A partner in the San Francisco accounting firm of Wilson & Biddle, Wilson said he now wants to try to resume a normal life.
"At first I was bitter (about the prosecution). I never thought that it would go this far--it was like getting caught up in a huge machine, drawn in bit by bit. . . . But now I'd like to just put this all behind me."
Wilson said he can foresee no reconciliation with his brother or brother-in-law. But he said he felt sorry for them. "I was surprised that they kept coming back for a beating (from defense attorneys on cross-examination). . . . It was ugly to watch."
Serra said the defense team's investigation of Parker's death convinced him that the killing was done by a professional in connection with the victim's suspected drug dealings. But neither Serra nor Wilson said they want to see the investigation reopened.
"I don't know that that would go any good," Serra said. "It was so long ago."
Serra alluded to Joan McShane Mills' ill-fated trip to Beverly Hills 4 years ago as he discussed the upcoming marriage plans of Wilson and Seymour. "It's going to be better luck this time," the attorney said with a laugh. "He's going to keep her away from Los Angeles."