Teen Witnesses Set to Testify in Prom Night Slaying Trial : Courts: Defense attorney will argue that sleeping girl’s shooting death at a hotel party was a ‘tragic accident.’ Prosecutors are ready to urge a first-degree murder conviction.
It was supposed to be a typical high school post-prom party: arrival in a sleek black limousine, a little drinking, a little snuggling with your date, all in the privacy of a suite of hotel rooms. It ended in a tragedy as dawn approached that will be played out in detail this week in Orange County Superior Court.
A parade of teen-age witnesses will explain their version of events that led up to the June 1 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Berlyn Fuentes Cosman of La Crescenta as she lay asleep on a fold-out couch in Room 608 at the Crown Sterling Suites Hotel in Anaheim.
The defendant, 19-year-old Paul Michael Crowder, a last-minute invitee to the festive evening, is scheduled to go on trial this week charged with her murder.
Prosecutors accuse him of recklessly waving a loaded .357 magnum revolver most of the night and threatening others with it, then firing it in Cosman’s direction as he entered the room where she and others were already asleep.
“It was a tragic accident,” said E. Bonnie Marshall, Crowder’s trial attorney.
But she has already hinted in court papers that she has an alternative theory if the jury decides not to accept that premise. Marshall raises the issue of a possible manslaughter verdict, which could mean a sentence anywhere from probation to 11 years, far less than what prosecutors are seeking.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans made clear in his discussions about the case with the Orange County Grand Jury, which indicted Crowder two months ago, that he believes the defendant was likely guilty of at least second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of 17 years to life in prison when a gun is used. That’s based on a theory of “implied malice,” meaning that Crowder should have known that his reckless actions with the gun were dangerous enough to result in someone’s death.
But prosecutor Evans has already stated in court papers that he will ask Superior Court Judge Theodore E. Millard to permit the jury to also consider first-degree murder.
“I want to leave it open to them,” Evans said. “They may decide there is enough there for a first.”
First-degree murder, which carries a penalty of 27 years to life in a gun-related death, essentially would mean that Crowder entered the room with the intention of shooting Cosman. That alternative prosecution theory is based in large part on a statement allegedly made by the defendant a few hours before the shooting: In grand jury testimony, a witness quoted Crowder as saying, “They’re bitches. I hate them. I want to kill them.”
The Anaheim post-prom party was supposed to include a few couples from La Crescenta High School. But shortly after midnight, the group’s number had swelled to more than a dozen teen-agers.
Crowder was not even a student at the school anymore. A former football player there, he was working part time at a carwash and coaching football and baseball for young kids on the side. He had been invited because some in the group feared that a former boyfriend of one of the girls might show up and try to cause trouble. Crowder knew the young man and some thought he could quash any problems.
But only one other teen-ager in the group knew that Crowder had brought two guns with him. Crowder gave him one of them to hold. Crowder even had a third gun in his car. The .357 magnum he kept, loading it and unloading it during the night, holding it in his lap as he played cards, and occasionally waving it around the room.
At one point he put the gun to the buttocks of one young man lying down, who had asked him to put the gun away, and said, according to grand jury testimony: “Do you want your (buttocks) blown off?”
Several people objected to his gun-waving, according to the grand jury testimony, and one young woman demanded that he unload it and let them have the bullets. Crowder did, but later reloaded it.
At one point, some of the teen-agers told the grand jury, Crowder argued with Cosman and a second girl because he wanted to party in the room where they were trying to sleep, and they insisted that he leave. That was when one of the teen-agers heard him say he would like to kill them.
Later, the second girl got up and entered the main party room, and angrily exchanged expletives with Crowder. It was soon after that when Crowder and a teen-age boy entered Room 608. Seconds later, a shot was fired from Crowder’s .357 magnum, striking Cosman dead where she slept near the door.
Crowder is being held in Orange County Jail on $250,000 bail. Prosecutor Evans alleged, in arguing against a defense motion to reduce the bail, that Crowder took callous actions after the shooting. He remained in the room long enough to see that Cosman had been shot, witnesses told the grand jury, but then left the scene, throwing the gun in some bushes outside the hotel. He was arrested later at home, where he was asleep.
“He threw the loaded gun in a public place where any child might find it,” Evans said.
Despite the teen-agers’ testimony about Crowder’s frightening display with the gun that prom night, he has many supporters who describe another side to him.
He became a hero to his mother and his two younger brothers, they say, after his father died four years ago.
“His brothers really looked up to him,” family friend Theresa Matthews of Tujunga wrote to the court.
Another, Sharon Mark, president of a T-Ball league where Crowder coached, wrote about him: “I have never seen so much love in a family from a young man.”
But Evans has his own theories about Crowder’s personality. In his statements to the grand jury, the prosecutor accused Crowder of displaying “beer muscle.”
“This man places his fun, his macho, as more important to him than the safety of anybody else in the room,” Evans told the grand jurors. “He has what I call beer muscle. . . . Some guys drink a few beers and the bravado starts to roll out.”
But before Evans can put any of the teen-agers on the witness stand to tell what happened, he’s going to have to deal with an angry defense attorney first.
Marshall filed a motion last week seeking dismissal of the charges based on what she calls law enforcement’s destruction of critical evidence. Although officials extracted from a mattress the bullet that passed through the victim’s head, they threw away the mattress.
Marshall claims she needs the mattress so her ballistic expert can properly re-create the trajectory of the bullet.
“Trajectory is a critical element of this case,” Marshall wrote the court.
Although jury selection in the Crowder trial is scheduled to start Monday morning, Judge Millard may decide to deal with Marshall’s motion of the mattress issue first.
Once a jury is selected, the Crowder case could get widespread attention throughout the county. An Orange County cable-news service has been granted permission by the court to broadcast the entire trial live--with the condition that none of the jurors ever be depicted on camera.
Once the teen-agers begin to take the stand, Crowder’s character on that evening is going to be the focal point.
In her letter to the court, Theresa Matthews wrote that “when Paul’s father died, he had to grow up pretty fast.”
Evans is going to argue that Crowder didn’t grow up fast enough.