Did the defendant rape and murder the stranded motorist, or was he coerced into making a confession by tough-talking cops?
This is the question a jury in Superior Court Judge Bernard E. Revak's courtroom will ponder over the next two weeks as testimony is presented in the case of Elmer Lee Nance, a 63-year-old drifter accused of murdering a woman whose car had broken down on Interstate 8.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Dusek told the jury in his opening statement Thursday that Nance admitted killing Nancy Allison White, 22, on Aug. 27, 1986, as she was returning home to Orange County.
Although Dusek admitted to the jury that investigators aggressively questioned Nance during a 1991 interrogation, he said Nance confessed on the audiotape to raping the victim in the back of his truck and discovering later that she did not have a pulse.
Attorneys for both sides agree that Nance was at the scene just east of El Cajon on the day White's car overheated. White was strangled, and her body was eventually dumped alongside Batiquitos Lagoon near Carlsbad, where it was found five days later by two boys.
But defense attorney Peter Liss passionately told the jury that Nance "sort of admitted" the crime only after the high-pressure interview of 1991 in which investigators lied to Nance and told him that he was going to be charged with White's murder. Nance was arrested at the interrogation.
Liss said that Nance was also interrogated soon after White's murder and that his truck was searched by evidence technicians, but that no evidence was discovered at that time.
He also said his client's mental state, which he described as being in "the borderline intellectual functioning range," will be discussed during the trial by a clinical psychologist.
Liss also told the jury to expect testimony detailing how Nance is "highly susceptible to coercion and dominant figures."
Nance remains in San Diego County Jail.