The jury in the court-martial of an El Toro Marine accused of bludgeoning his wife to death got its first look Wednesday at the scene where he and an accomplice allegedly strapped the body into a car and pushed it over a cliff off Ortega Highway.
The nine jurors, all of them men, scrambled down two steep footpaths into the garbage-strewn ravine to examine the blackened tree trunk where the car allegedly was set on fire after it plummeted over the 200-foot cliff.
As the jurors poked around in the garbage--which included a gutted sofa, two wrecked cars and the remnants of an old dryer--the defendant, Sgt. Joseph L. Thomas, 28, huddled near his attorneys.
Defense attorney Maj. Mark Stevens said he asked for the outdoor court session so jurors could see the scene before he began his defense. The remote mountainous countryside is near the border of Orange and Riverside counties.
The prosecution, which rested its case Monday, contends that Thomas bludgeoned his wife, Melinda Jean Thomas, 24, and then faked a traffic accident so he could collect on the $50,000 life insurance policy he had taken out for her a few months before. If he is convicted, Thomas faces the death penalty.
Riverside County coroners initially ruled that Melinda Thomas’ April 5 death was a suicide. But the ruling was changed to homicide 4 months later when the Naval Investigative Service, which had begun its own investigation, arrested Lance Cpl. Mitchael Nelson, 24, in connection with the slaying.
Nelson has since gained immunity and become the prosecution’s star witness, testifying that he watched Thomas beat his wife to death with a tire iron, then helped Thomas get rid of the body.
Nelson said the two bundled Melinda Thomas’ body into the trunk of a rental car, then drove it and the couple’s Suzuki Samurai into the mountains off Ortega Highway. Nelson said he helped Thomas strap the body into the Suzuki and push the car over the embankment before climbing down into the ravine and setting the car on fire.
Defense attorney Stevens, who is scheduled to call his first witness today, has countered that Nelson’s testimony is contradictory and self-incriminating, and shows that Nelson “did everything but strike the blow.”