Executive Goes on Trial in 30-Year-Old Murder : Courts: Fingerprints are the only evidence against the defendant. The original investigating officer and the victim's former son-in-law testify.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been 30 years since someone slipped through a kitchen window in Thora Marie Rose's Hollywood apartment and bludgeoned and strangled her in her bed.

On Wednesday, Vernon Robinson, now 48, a professorial looking cleaning-company executive, went on trial for the crime, which police believe they solved in 1990 when they used modern computer technology to match his fingerprints to prints allegedly found at the murder scene three decades ago.

Last week during jury selection, a potential juror asked the central question in this case: Is it possible to put someone on trial for a murder that occurred so long ago?

Robinson's defense lawyer, Bruce Cormicle, answers no, and he tried last month to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the passage of time has eroded his client's ability to effectively defend himself.

Superior Court Judge Nora M. Manella, however, denied the motion to dismiss.

On Wednesday, she looked on as the first two witnesses testified about events that occurred when some of those in the courtroom were not yet born.

In a short opening statement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Turley made only minor references to the passage of time, noting that last Sunday was the 30th anniversary of the victim's death.

Turley concedes that the fingerprints are the only evidence linking Robinson to the crime.

Cormicle made no reference to the passage of time in his opening argument.

The defense lawyer contended that the evidence will show that Robinson could not have committed the crime because he was in training at a naval station in San Diego, where he was a recruit.

Rose was killed, he said, "by someone other than Vernon Robinson."

He said that the jury will be read the testimony from a 1991 court proceeding of Robinson's only alibi witness, a man who has since died. The man testified that he was with Robinson in San Diego when Rose, 43, was killed.

Cormicle said later that he would challenge the fingerprint evidence, questioning whether the fingerprints police say they found at the murder scene actually came from there.

The first prosecution witness in the case was Gary Schenck, who at the time of the killing was a 21-year-old assistant manager at his uncle's food market in Hollywood, newly married to the victim's daughter.

He testified that he and his wife had dinner at Rose's apartment the evening before she was killed, and that he was the first family member to learn of the slaying.

In an interview during a break in testimony, he said he could not believe it when Los Angeles Police Department investigators called him in 1991 and told him that an arrest had been made in the case.

"I felt the person had disappeared long ago," he said.

Schenck, who is now a senior field coordinator for the construction arm of Vons food stores, said his divorce from Rose's daughter and a divorce he is now going through are directly attributable to Rose's death.

His first wife "was never the same" after her mother's death, he said. His second wife, he said, objected to his participation in Robinson's prosecution.

The only other witness in court Wednesday was Mason Sexton, 63, a retired Los Angeles police sergeant.

Sexton was a 33-year-old patrol officer on Oct. 3, 1963, and he discovered Rose's body.

Sexton said he recalled the murder scene vividly. All these years, he said, he has kept newspaper clippings about it in a scrapbook.

The trail leading to Robinson's arrest began in December, 1990, when police used a new computer system to make a random check of unsolved Los Angeles Police Department homicide cases.

In 1963, investigators had unsuccessfully checked thousands of fingerprints and eventually gave up.

The computer system can search for likely fingerprint matches at lightning speed, compared to a human being searching by hand. The same type of system helped convict Richard Ramirez of the Night Stalker serial killings.

Of the 50 cases checked, the computer indicated a possible match in only one--between fingerprints taken from an old booking card of Robinson and those taken from the 1963 murder scene. Investigators pronounced the prints identical, a fact that Cormicle has said introduced the possibility of error.

The booking card was from one of several arrests, all of which occurred several years after the Rose slaying. The Navy veteran, who served in Vietnam and the Philippines, spent three years in San Quentin on assault and robbery convictions in the 1970s.

His family's pastor, the Rev. James Lawson, said last month that Robinson had a drinking and drug abuse problem during those years.

Lawson--at the hearing with a full row of church members, Robinson's ex-wife and two of his three adult sons--said Robinson later straightened out his life.

At the time of his arrest, Robinson was a $70,000-a-year building maintenance executive who had just moved into a new apartment in Minneapolis, where he had been sent by his company.

He fought extradition but was eventually returned to Los Angeles to face the murder charge.

Last month, Manella refused to allow Robinson's criminal record to become an issue in the trial, saying his only actions relevant to the case are those he may have taken on the night Rose was killed.

At the time, Robinson, then an 18-year-old resident of South-Central Los Angeles, had recently enlisted in the Navy.

"He was in the Navy to be all that he could be," said Lawson. "He was ambitious to make something out of his life. He was not thinking of killing anyone."

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