Over the years, memories have faded and witnesses have vanished. At least 17 judges have handled the case, including one who committed suicide while presiding over jury selection. Indictments were once thrown out because a court reporter typed so many errors into transcripts. One trial ended with a hung jury, shattering local and state records for its longevity.
As the People vs. Thomas Maniscalco case appeared in jeopardy of a second mistrial, the long-running legal drama ended abruptly on Tuesday with the Westminster lawyer’s conviction of ordering the executions of three people.
The verdict came 10 years to the day since Maniscalco’s arrest, nearly 14 years since two men and a young woman were found executed in a Westminster ranch home over Memorial Day weekend in 1980.
For a retired Los Alamitos police officer, the grief remains as raw as the day he learned that his daughter had been raped and shot to death.
For a former judge, the case has consumed her for nearly a decade. She says she is so convinced that Maniscalco--her former law student and friend--is innocent that she is defending him for free.
For a veteran prosecutor, time became an enemy in an unrelenting mission to send Maniscalco to the gas chamber--or at least state prison.
For Maniscalco, the case has been the ultimate legal test for a lawyer who has steadfastly protested his innocence and has talked about one day picking up where he left off--representing bikers and drug defendants. All these years he has kept up his California Bar dues.
“This case has a life of its own, an absolute life of its own,” said defense attorney Joanne Harrold, who befriended Maniscalco as his former law school professor and has represented him for a decade. “Everything that could have gone wrong in this case has; things that no one could ever imagine happening, has happened.”
Huntington Beach Police Capt. Barry Price, who assisted with the original investigation, offers a more sinister view: “This case is like a curse.”
The Defense Lawyer
Joanne Harrold met Thomas Maniscalco and his dad, John, when they were her students at Glendale University College of Law in the early 1970s.
She was struck by the close relationship between the two men, and their determination to start a law practice together. She remembers that they stood out in her class: John Maniscalco was a retired New York police sergeant and his son was a co-founder of the Hessian motorcycle gang eager to become a lawyer to defend other bikers from police harassment.
Harrold recalled Thomas Maniscalco as a gentleman who had to study hard because the law didn’t come easily for him. She gave him private tutoring, and over the years the two became friends.
It was no surprise a few years later that Maniscalco turned to Harrold, a former Westminster municipal judge, for help after his arrest.
She was appointed to Maniscalco’s case in 1984, but had legal problems of her own: She had been removed from the bench and charged with a misdemeanor count of lying about her residence to qualify for a 1982 judicial ballot.
At one point, courthouse wags were taking bets on who would go to trial first, Maniscalco or his attorney. Those wagering on Maniscalco won. Harrold was convicted in March, 1992, and her case is now being reviewed by the State Bar, officials said.
As Maniscalco’s court-appointed attorney, Harrold was paid by the taxpayers and the prosecution criticized her as riding the “gravy train” with delaying tactics--a charge she denies.
Harrold, 50, was replaced as lead counsel in the fall of 1991 after a judge raised concerns that Harrold’s back problems would cause further trial delays. Harrold objected and continues to sit as co-counsel--without pay.
In a recent interview, she said she spends 60 hours a week minimum on the case, working alongside defense attorney Curt Livesay, formerly the No. 3 prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. More than 100 boxes of documents are stacked at her home, along with dozens of large multicolored binders filled with evidence. She’s taken to writing on both sides of each sheet to save paper.
Her dedication has taken its toll on her private practice and her family. The Christmas holidays--which came during the middle of Maniscalco’s second trial--were a blur. She finds herself dreaming about legal strategies and thinking about the case at stop lights and when she’s grocery shopping for dinner.
Some friends think she’s crazy. She says she’s lucky to have a supportive husband.
“To me this isn’t a job,” Harrold says. “If I walked away, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I know he is not guilty. It is not possible that he committed these crimes.”
The case against Maniscalco and his co-defendant, Daniel Duffy, has generated more than 100,000 pages of evidence and court transcripts spanning 14 years. But prosecutor Rick King recites key dates and witness testimony like most people rattle off their phone number.
King has been on the case since 1988, and has taken Maniscalco to trial twice and Duffy to trial once in separate proceedings. Each trial lasted more than six months, with Maniscalco’s first trial spanning a marathon 17 months and breaking state records as jurors deliberated for 26 days before declaring themselves deadlocked.
Time has conspired against the prosecution. With each new hearing, each trial, witnesses’ memories have blurred and testimony about critical details is forgotten on the witness stand. It’s been up to King to comb through years-old documents to ferret out key points that can make all the difference to a jury.
“I should know this all inside and out--I’ve tried this case three times,” said King, 46, head of the homicide unit of the Orange County district attorney’s office. The case has become so emblazoned in his mind that he now recalls once-popular songs by their release at different phases of the case.
King’s courtroom style is normally cool, methodical, reserved. But the Maniscalco case has sent his temper flaring over the years, especially when he has accused the defense team of manipulating the case. In the first trial, for example, the defense team filed 200 pretrial motions.
The prosecutor has blasted defense delays and once called Harrold a liar before a judge, saying that if she were Pinocchio, her nose would stretch out the courtroom doors and down the hallway.
King thought he had seen everything in the case, but was outraged all over again last year when the defense sought to persuade a separate jury that Maniscalco was mentally incompetent to stand trial. The prosecutor pointed out the defendant was preparing legal documents for fellow inmates during the same time he was supposedly suffering from mental impairment due to his long stay in jail.
The prosecutor won that fight, although he has been disappointed in other key battles. In 1992, he reluctantly dropped his effort to send Maniscalco to the gas chamber. And when jurors in Maniscalco’s first trial deadlocked 10-2 for conviction, King was forced to start from scratch.
As the case dragged on, King said, the memory of 19-year-old rape-murder victim Rena Miley has fueled his determination to bring Maniscalco to justice.
“What she went through in the last half-hour, last 45 minutes of her life was just pure terror,” he said. “She knew she was going to die, that she would be murdered.”
Grace Maniscalco is admittedly bitter about the triple murder case. She said it cost her both her son and her husband.
Shortly after her son’s 1984 arrest, her husband, John, discovered he had lung cancer. The retired policeman died a few months later, and Grace Maniscalco said she believes the stress of seeing his son behind bars hastened his death.
A 72-year-old retiree from Woodland Hills, Grace Maniscalco prays constantly to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. She writes to her son each day--sometimes twice a day--and visits when a friend can manage the long drive.
She said she dreams of the day her son will be released. On Tuesday, she choked back tears as she learned of his conviction.
“Oh God,” she said, over and over.
Rena Miley was 19, the daughter of a Los Alamitos police officer. She was flirting with rebellion when she began dating Richard (Rabbit) Rizzone, 36, a Hessian biker, in 1980.
In many ways, the years of legal wrangling that characterize the case has overshadowed the brutal crime itself: Miley, Rizzone and his bodyguard, Thomas Monahan, 28, were repeatedly shot in Rizzone’s Westminster ranch home, their bodies scattered across the house until Rizzone’s brother found them several days later. Miley had also been raped.
During closing arguments in Maniscalco’s second trial, the prosecutor pointed to a blurry photograph of Miley and lamented that the time that has lapsed during the case has relegated the victims to “historical figures.”
Rizzone and Monahan were willing participants in a lifestyle that included danger, fast times and drugs, but prosecutors say they do not believe Miley was involved in illegal activity.
“She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said King.
“I’ll tell you one thing right now, you never forget something like this, you live with it every single day,” said her father, Gary Miley, said in a recent interview.
Maniscalco sees himself as a martyr to the “counterculture” cause. He insists the charges against him are part of a law enforcement conspiracy to nail a former Hessian and attorney whose practice consisted of defending bikers and those accused of drug charges.
“He’s said to me that this is the kind of thing that got him interested in the law in the first place,” said Harrold, who notes that at the time of the killings, Maniscalco was urging the state attorney general, the Orange County Grand Jury and others to investigate allegations into police misconduct in Orange County.
In custody he has made a name for himself as an advocate for inmates’ rights, filing lawsuits complaining about poor jail conditions, prisoner abuse and the lack of Mexican food served in the grub line.
He occupies a single cell and has access to law books, typewriters and other items, and provides legal assistance to fellow inmates. He has talked with hope about his future and wants to continue fighting the kind of abuse that led to his own incarceration, Harrold said. It’s why Maniscalco keeps renewing his law license each year.
“For 10 years, Tom has been on an emotional roller coaster ride to hell,” Harrold said. “When you think about it, they’ve taken all his 40s. He turned 40 about the time of the arrest, and just turned 49 in jail. Are they going to take his 50s, too?”