In a bizarre twist to an already unusual murder case, an anonymous letter revealed in court Tuesday accused Richard K. Overton of deliberately sabotaging his trial, which ended in a mistrial partly because of a yearlong recess triggered by his attorney's bout with depression.
Wearing thin latex gloves to keep his fingerprints off the paper, Superior Court Judge David O. Carter read the letter aloud during a special hearing he called to inform the prosecutor and Overton's current defense attorney of the letter's contents.
Carter, who has jurisdiction over the case, received the letter in the mail last Friday. It bore no return address and had a Santa Ana postmark.
"Unfortunately, you and the appellate court have been duped," the letter informed Carter. "Overton knew (his attorney) was completely out of it and had psychological problems way before this trial started in this court. . . . Neither the appellate court nor you could have had any idea that the entire thing was planned."
Overton denied Tuesday that he plotted to undermine his trial, which has been set for retrial starting Oct. 25. "The letter sounds like something out of a comic book," Overton said. "It's weird. I wish I knew who wrote it."
He said that his trial attorney, Robert D. Chatterton, was hired in early 1989, years before the former prosecutor and veteran defense counsel exhibited any signs of depression.
Without public explanation, Carter recessed Overton's half-completed murder trial in July, 1992, shortly after the prosecution presented evidence suggesting that Overton used cyanide in early 1988 to poison his wife, Janet L. Overton, a well-known Capistrano Unified School District trustee.
Behind the scenes, Chatterton was suffering from a debilitating depression, which raised difficult questions for Carter about the adequacy of Overton's defense. Complicating the issue were allegations that Overton had tampered with evidence turned over to Chatterton.
In August of this year, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana declared a mistrial in the case, citing, among other things, the strong likelihood that jurors' attitudes had become set during the unprecedented recess.
Overton's current defense attorney, George Peters, declined to comment on the letter, except to say that the correspondence and the circumstances surrounding it seem "very odd." The case, he added, "has taken some bizarre twists."
The letter also accuses Overton of stealing and adulterating evidence, in addition to destroying computer records and documents that were relevant to his case.
Chatterton "was being taken advantage of by Overton. . . . Bob couldn't remember what he was or wasn't given by Overton," the letter says. "Overton knew Bob was psychotic and intentionally let him try the case so that he could argue lack of effective representation if he lost."
Despite his illness, Chatterton has maintained that he did a good job for Overton, and Carter, after a lengthy review of the trial transcript, concluded that Chatterton's performance in court was adequate. Chatterton now says he is fully recovered from his illness.
In the letter, the author further describes how Overton supposedly obtained cyanide from an acquaintance, who holds several domestic and foreign patents related to metal processing. The writer then closed with an offer to assist Carter and the district attorney's office in linking Overton to his wife's death.
"I will help you out and won't let it get much further away from justice," the letter states. "I will use the word 'Elway' when contacting you so you know it is me. I couldn't allow these tricks to go much further."
During the hearing, Carter said he was concerned about the letter, and hinted that someone might be trying to influence the disposition of the case in Overton's favor. He noted that someone had improperly leaked sealed court documents detailing months of confidential hearings to the news media, including discussions of Chatterton's health.
The judge suggested that the writer of the anonymous letter would do better to contact the prosecution. Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Evans said he would welcome contact by the letter-writer, even anonymously.
Carter said he would forward a copy of the letter and a transcript of Tuesday's hearing to the appeals court in Santa Ana, which is considering a request by Overton's current attorney to removed Carter as the judge overseeing the case.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Peters said, the appeals court notified him that Carter has two choices in the matter--either remove himself or a hearing will be set for Jan. 18.
Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.