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Prosecutor Sees ‘Extortion’ : Kraft Defense’s Tactic on Testimony Attacked

Times Staff Writer

A prosecutor in the serial murder trial of Randy Steven Kraft on Tuesday accused the defense of “extortion” in threatening to withhold Kraft’s testimony if the judge does not agree to limit the questions the defendant can be asked during cross-examination.

If Kraft decides to testify, then “the time has arrived when this defendant must pay his money and take his chances,” argued Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas M. Goethals in court papers filed Tuesday.

Goethals’ challenge sets the stage for an unusual non-jury debate today before Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin over the defense’s right to have ground rules on cross-examination set, should Kraft decide to testify next week.

‘A Critical Issue’

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“It is clearly a critical issue,” said Kraft attorney William J. Kopeny. “The outcome will determine whether or not anyone ever hears what Randy Kraft has to say.”

Kraft, now 44, is being tried in Santa Ana in the murders of 16 young men in Orange County. If he is convicted, prosecutors expect to link him with up to 45 murders in Southern California, Oregon and Michigan in a hearing on whether to apply the death penalty.

Kraft was arrested May 14, 1983, when two California Highway Patrol officers found a dead Marine, Terry Lee Gambrel, 25, in a passenger seat of Kraft’s car after the officers stopped Kraft for a routine traffic violation.

Also found in Kraft’s car was evidence linking him with four of the other murders with which he is charged, prosecutors said, plus a list in Kraft’s handwriting that prosecutors call a “death list.”

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Private Meeting With Judge

Defense papers filed Tuesday show that Kraft’s lawyers want to meet privately with Judge McCartin today--without the prosecutor or public present--to outline what their client will testify about. Kraft’s lawyers then want assurances from the judge that prosecutors could not cross-examine Kraft about any murders that he did not discuss on direct examination by his lawyers.

“This is a fundamental constitutional right,” Kopeny argued Tuesday. “If Randy discusses one incident, he should not have to give up his Fifth Amendment right not to testify about anything else he might be charged with.”

But Goethals argued in the court filings that if Kraft talks about one murder, prosecutors should have a right to test his credibility in front of the jury by asking him about the others in the charges. Also, prosecutors say all 16 murders have in common Kraft’s method of operation.

While Kraft lawyers will not say which “incident” Kraft would testify about, widespread speculation among law enforcement officials is that Kraft wants to testify only about the Gambrel death.

No Explanation of Corpse

For one thing, although the defense has been submitting evidence since Jan. 30, it has yet to give the jurors an explanation for how Gambrel ended up dead in Kraft’s car--strangled with his own belt, found in Kraft’s back seat, and tied up with his own shoelaces.

Prosecutors have also said the CHP arrest prevented Kraft from getting a chance to place Gambrel on his “death list.” By letting Kraft testify about Gambrel only, one theory is, the defense would then claim Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, who is the trial prosecutor, could not ask about the list.

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“I think it’s a safe assumption that the defense doesn’t want to let us anywhere near asking Kraft any questions about that death list,” Goethals said.

Goethals’ main argument in the papers he filed Tuesday is that the judge does not have the right to make a decision on limiting the scope of cross-examination until after Kraft actually takes the oath and testifies.

But Goethals added that he believes the defense attorneys have tried to place the judge in a “no-win” situation: That is, if the judge does not agree to limit cross-examination, will an appellate court later order a new trial to determine whether Kraft’s rights were violated? Would the judge then relent “in an abundance of caution” to prevent a new trial on the issue?

‘Attempted Extortion’

“This bears an ugly resemblance to attempted extortion of the trial court,” Goethals said.


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