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Murder Case Produces a Mistrial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hopelessly deadlocked after 17 days of deliberations, the jury in the Willie Ray Roberts death penalty murder trial announced Wednesday that it could not reach a verdict, leading a San Diego judge to declare a mistrial in the complicated case.

Superior Court Judge Norbert Ehrenfreund dismissed the panel after it announced it was stuck, 9 to 3, in favor of acquittal on the murder charge. Roberts, 36, a parolee, was accused of luring a teen-age girl into a vacant house in East San Diego, raping her and then stomping her to death.

The jury disclosed that it also was deadlocked on two lesser charges, burglary and assault. Earlier, the panel convicted Roberts of two charges of child molesting and acquitted him of a third such charge.

Roberts, who has been in jail since he was arrested in July, 1988, showed no emotion as jurors announced the deadlock.

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Defense attorneys were far less circumspect. “I feel real good,” lawyer Christopher J. Plourd said in an impromptu hearing with jurors and reporters outside the courtroom. He added moments later that he hopes prosecutors will “reassess this thing” and choose not to go through the expense and burden of a second trial.

That, Deputy Dist. Atty. Denise McGuire said, was unlikely. “I’m going to talk it over with the office, but we feel there was sufficient evidence this first time,” she said. “And I still have no question in my mind that the man is guilty.”

Roberts was charged with murder in the July 12, 1988, slaying of 17-year-old Melissa Orchulli. The girl, a 10th-grader who was on her way to school, was found strangled and beaten severely on her head. A prospective renter found her body in a vacant Euclid Avenue house.

During the trial, which began in April, several teen-age girls testified that Roberts, a landscape worker, would talk to them on their way to school and try to lure them into vacant buildings.

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Defense attorneys claimed during the case that authorities had the wrong man, even presenting so-called “genetic fingerprinting” evidence--DNA tests that rely on genetic matching techniques--that, the lawyers said, pointed to two other men.

It is far more common in criminal cases for prosecutors to present the results of DNA tests to match a suspect to a crime. The intriguing twist in the Roberts case was that defense lawyers presented tests that they claimed cleared Roberts as a suspect.

Prosecutors claimed the genetic material that had been tested by the defense was contaminated, meaning the test results were unreliable.

Jurors said the DNA issue, which took up considerable time at the trial, played little role in deliberations. Instead, said foreman Marina Parris, 28, of San Diego, a General Dynamics operations staffer, the panel remained at 9 to 3 for acquittal because the majority could not tie Roberts directly to the crime scene.

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Jurors said the count hovered about 9 to 3 for all 17 days of talks. The three who felt Roberts was guilty of murder said they were convinced that Roberts had a pattern of stalking teen-age girls that culminated in Orchulli’s killing.

“A 32-year-old man after (teen-age) kids,” said juror Evelyn Hogan, 48, of San Diego, who voted for conviction. “I will never forget this.”

Jurors were given the case on July 24. Five days later, the panel convicted Roberts of the two misdemeanor molestation counts, which involved two girls who said he touched them inappropriately while they were walking to school in 1988 in the same area that Orchulli was slain.

That same day, July 29, Ehrenfreund excused one juror, who had a prepaid European vacation. After calling an alternate jurors, the judge ordered the panel to start over again with the murder, assault and burglary charges. After the jury sent a fourth note reporting deadlock on all three charges, Ehrenfreund on Wednesday ordered a mistrial on the felony counts.

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Ehrenfreund set an Oct. 4 sentencing hearing on the molestation counts. The judge also said that he would decide that day when a second trial should begin.

Jurors left the courtroom frustrated by indecision. “I was just thinking of all these months and months,” foreman Parris said. “I wouldn’t have thought we couldn’t come to an agreement.”


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