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Defense Says Marine Lacked Motive to Kill

Times Staff Writer

The defense attorney for Marine Gunnery Sgt. Murray Payne said Thursday that the El Toro Marine, who is accused of hanging his wife and making it look like a suicide, had no possible motive for killing her.

During the first day of a preliminary hearing at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, attorney Kevin McDermott attacked the prosecution’s premise that Ella Mae Payne, 39, could not have tied the knot in the noose around her neck when her body was found last May in the couple’s Corona home.

Much of the nearly 12 hours of discussion Thursday centered on a possible motive for the death of Payne, and on whether she was capable of suicide. The prosecution contends that the knot found in the noose was too difficult for someone with no experience with knots.

The hearing, known as an Article 32 proceeding, is being held to determine whether there is enough evidence to court martial the 40-year-old Payne for murder.

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McDermott said the knot and noose used in the hanging were “a simple square knot you use when tying your shoe and then two loops after that.” He said the noose was similar to one used in the children’s game “Cat in the Cradle.”

Two military knot experts, Sgt. Ronald Mark Cuellar and Michael P. Block, who were called by the prosecution, testified under McDermott’s questioning that a knot he made, as if tying a shoe, was similar to the one used in Ella Payne’s death.

McDermott continued to question the motive his client would have for killing his wife, suggesting instead that she committed suicide out of fear that her husband would discover that their home was about to go into foreclosure.

McDermott said Ella Payne had stopped paying the $1,200-a-month mortgage payments nearly a year before her death. “The jig was up, that’s what we think,” he said. “She knew they were coming to evict her.”

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The couple’s 22-year-old son, Darrell Payne, testified that he received a foreclosure summons, which he gave to his father and later to his mother. The young man said his parents talked about the problem and that a couple of days later “mom picked up the phone and said the foreclosure was a mistake and there’d be a letter and apology in the mail.”

Outside the hearing room on the El Toro base, McDermott said Payne and his son were evicted 1 day after he found his wife dead. The lawyer added that the son had turned against his father and had taken money from the elder Payne. He suggested that others besides the dead woman’s husband had more of a motive than Payne himself.

While Payne was being detained in the Marine Corps brig in connection with his wife’s death, McDermott said, Darrell Payne withdrew up to $3,000, without permission, from his father’s naval account, using a card he took from the elder Payne’s wallet. While Darrell Payne admitted to withdrawing money without permission, he testified that only $600 was taken from the account.

Payne’s hearing will continue today. Maj. R.W.G. Grove, who is presiding as the investigating officer, will review the case after all testimony has been received and recommend a course of action to Payne’s commanding officer, who will make the final decision.

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