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Ex-Officer Escapes Death for Contract Killing

Times Staff Writer

Former Los Angeles police detective Richard Herman Ford no longer faces possible execution for the 1983 contract murder of a Northridge businessman.

Prosecutors ruled out the death penalty Friday by announcing that they will not seek to retry the penalty phase of Ford’s trial, which ended with jurors unable to agree on a verdict. A judge cannot impose the death sentence unless a jury recommends it unanimously.

A Van Nuys Superior Court jury convicted Ford in October of murdering Thomas Weed, a debt collector and small-business owner. But jurors disagreed over the sentence, with 11 favoring life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and one favoring the death penalty.

The deadlock left prosecutors with a choice of retrying the punishment phase of the trial or allowing Superior Court Judge Darlene E. Schempp to determine Ford’s fate.

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Prosecutors said they were influenced by the jurors’ nearly unanimous opposition to the death penalty and the considerable expense of a new trial.

“We tried our best case,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Lonnie A. Felker said outside court after announcing the decision. “We don’t feel it would be appropriate to go forward and try it again.”

Superior Court trials generally cost about $5,000 a day, not including defense attorney fees, prosecutors said. Pre-trial proceedings in Ford’s case began in March; the trial started in July.

Although a new jury would not be allowed to decide guilt or innocence, prosecutors would have to retry the entire case to give jurors a foundation for sentencing.

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Ford, sporting a beard, smiled as the decision was announced.

“I think it was the right decision,” said Richard P. Lasting, one of Ford’s two defense attorneys. But co-counsel Rickard Santwier said: “It’s hard to have a good feeling when your client is going to spend the rest of his life in jail.”

Another consideration for the district attorney’s office was that the trial prosecutor, former Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert P. O’Neill, was sworn in last week as a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge. A new prosecutor would have to become familiar with massive amounts of transcripts from prior court proceedings, Felker said.

Schempp has a number of options available at sentencing, scheduled Jan. 20. She could sentence Ford to a maximum term of life in prison with or without the possibility of parole, or she could strike the special circumstances allegation and reduce the case to first- or second-degree murder, which could mean a sentence of as little as 15 years to life, Felker said.

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However, court observers say the judge is likely to give Ford a harsh sentence.

Ford, 48, of Northridge and another Los Angeles police officer, Robert Von Villas, 44, of Simi Valley, were convicted by separate juries of murder and conspiracy to murder Weed in exchange for $20,000 from Weed’s ex-wife.

Weed disappeared from his Northridge apartment Feb. 23, 1983, and has never been found. Prosecutors believe that his body was buried in the desert.

Jurors in the Von Villas case recommended a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. He is to be sentenced Jan. 26.

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Both men, who were on the police force at the time of their crimes, were sentenced earlier this year to 35 years in prison for attempting to kill a Granada Hills exotic dancer in 1983 to collect on a life insurance policy, and for a 1982 Northridge jewelry store robbery.

Also Friday, Ford’s attorneys filed a motion seeking more information about a jailhouse informant, Anthony Love, who did not testify during the trial but whose statements they say were used to seek a warrant to tape record jailhouse conversations between Ford and his wife.

On the recordings, which were played to jurors, Ford said: “There’s no body.” He also expressed concern about authorities finding a gun.

Defense attorneys argue that the prosecution should be required to establish Love’s credibility. If that cannot be done, they said, the verdict should be overturned because the recordings should not have been admissible.

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The district attorney’s office is being criticized because a jailhouse informant, through a series of telephone calls from his jail cell, demonstrated that it is possible to learn enough details of a crime to deceive prosecutors into believing that a defendant confessed in jail.

Details about Love were not available Friday.


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