The Mundane Murder Trial Down the Hall
Three doors down from the “trial of the century,” a gruesome stabbing-murder trial has proceeded apace with only one prosecutor and one defense attorney, a single day of DNA testimony and absolutely no media attention.
Computer monitors and 87-inch video screens? Forget it. In the Ernest Dwayne Jones case, a dearth of pushpins resulted in overlapping photos of evidence on an old-fashioned bulletin board.
Videocassette players and remote-control cameras? No way. When the prosecutor was asked to move the overhead projector to give jurors a better view of DNA slides, he didn’t have an extension cord.
One other difference between the case of Jones, who was charged with raping and stabbing his girlfriend’s mother, and that of O.J. Simpson, accused of viciously slashing his ex-wife and her friend to death: Prosecutors sought capital punishment in the Jones case, and he is likely to be sentenced to death Friday.
Commentators frequently assert that the Simpson case provides an eager public with an illustrative primer on criminal justice. But in truth, the Jones case is far more reflective of day-to-day life in America’s largest county criminal court system.
For one thing, most murder trials--even those involving the ultimate penalty--rarely draw so much as a hiccup from the media.
“Once,” recalled Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeffrey Ramseyer, who is prosecuting Jones, “a reporter came in and said he was bored with the O.J. case and wanted to see what was going on elsewhere on the floor.
“There’s a certain irony about the fact there has been no reporting on our case at all.”
In fact, the machinery of death has become so mundane in Los Angeles County that district attorney’s officials are not sure how many death penalty trials were held under their jurisdiction last year.
The concurrent Jones and Simpson trials also raise two significant questions about the criminal justice system: whether moneyed defendants can buy a superior defense and whether punishment is proportionate for similar crimes.
Indeed, the foreman of the jury that recommended that Jones be put to death declares that a legal Dream Team and a bottomless wallet could have resulted in a more favorable outcome for Jones.
“If he had had Johnnie Cochran and his resources, he wouldn’t be sentenced to death,” foreman Robert Reagan said in an interview with The Times last week.
“I base this on nothing more than a gut feeling,” continued Reagan, who emphasizes that he believes the Jones jury reached the correct decision. “(But) if they brought in six psychiatrists . . . if they brought in other experts and overwhelmed us with clever data and impressive people, they might very well have at least got the jury to hang.”
Ramseyer, for his part, believes the Jones trial served as a model of legal justice, based on its brevity, fairness and outcome. “I think the system worked well in this case, I’d say that for sure.”
Jones’ attorney, veteran Deputy Public Defender Fred Manaster, terms as “pure speculation” the notion that additional resources would have made a difference.
Jones, who grew up in a broken home with alcoholic parents, was convicted of killing Julia Miller, 50, a defense industry accountant, in an August, 1992, attack. Miller’s husband of 30 years, Chester, discovered his wife’s gagged body--with two kitchen knives sticking out of her neck--in their Southwest Los Angeles bedroom after returning from work at the Department of Water and Power.
Chester Miller was not called to testify at the trial. That is because he is no longer alive. “My father grieved himself to death eight months after my mother passed,” daughter Pamela, who had lived with Jones for almost a year, told the jury.
The public defender’s office, making use of limited government resources, was able to call a pair of expert witnesses with impressive resumes in its attempt to keep Jones off Death Row: the vice chairman of the UCLA department of psychiatry and a former San Quentin associate warden.
At a one-day DNA hearing during the trial, without jurors present, an expert from the public defender’s office questioned the prosecution’s expert DNA witness. However, once Superior Court Judge Edward Ferns ruled that jurors could hear the DNA testimony, Manaster did not cross-examine the witness, who linked Jones to the crime scene through his semen.
Instead, the wiry defendant took the witness stand himself and essentially admitted to the killing, insisting that it was not pre-planned, that the victim sought to attack him first, and that he did not recall inflicting the wounds.
The strategy, an accepted if infrequently used defense practice in death penalty cases, failed to make any difference.
After 12 days of trial testimony beginning the same morning in early January that the Simpson jury was sequestered, Jones, 30, was found guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances. After an additional four-day penalty hearing, the Jones jury debated less than seven hours before agreeing with the district attorney’s recommendation that Jones be executed.
Jones’ sentencing--Judge Ferns can affirm the death verdict or overrule jurors and impose life without possibility of parole--has since been delayed once. But jurors in the Jones case returned to their regular lives a month before LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman even took the stand down the hall.
Besides its courthouse proximity, the Jones trial featured striking similarities to that of Simpson.
In both cases, the victims were slashed repeatedly in horrific displays of rage. And in both cases, there were no eyewitnesses.
DNA evidence prepared by the same Maryland firm has played a significant role in prosecution efforts to link both defendants to the murder scenes. And in both cases, the defendants, who are African-American men, led police on lengthy pursuits.
Yet there are striking differences as well.
In the Jones trial, two of the jurors were black, compared to eight in the Simpson trial.
And unlike the lengthy, low-speed police pursuit of Simpson, Jones, after being fingered as a suspect by his girlfriend, led police on a 40-minute high-speed chase on surface streets and the San Diego Freeway. When two tires blew out, Jones continued to drive the victim’s brown Chevy Caprice station wagon on its rims until they disintegrated. As police finally closed in, Jones shot himself once in the chest with a rifle.
Jones, unlike Simpson, was not a record-setting sports superstar. He did play some football at Crenshaw High School, but his only record is of a criminal nature--capped by the 1985 rape of his prior girlfriend’s mother, for which he served six years in state prison before being released in mid-1991.
Five months later, Jones took up with Pamela Miller, whom he had known in junior high in Canoga Park. The couple feuded for weeks before the killing, testimony showed, because of an affair Miller had begun with another man.
Under state law, the death penalty can be sought by prosecutors in first-degree murder cases in which any of more than two dozen special circumstances are present, among them kidnaping, torturing or poisoning the victim. State law also gives prosecutors wide latitude over when to demand death.
The district attorney’s office does not normally provide a public explanation of why it seeks capital punishment in some cases but not others. In the Simpson case, an official said a major factor was the superstar’s lack of a felony history. In the case of the Inglewood ex-con, prosecutors cited robbery, burglary and rape as the special circumstances.
Their theory, based on circumstantial testimony from Pamela Miller and a drug dealer friend of hers, was that Jones killed Mrs. Miller for her pearl earrings, a gold necklace and bracelet, which he bartered for $20 rocks of cocaine.
But jurors did not believe Pamela Miller, a preschool teacher who admitted using cocaine herself, and returned not guilty verdicts on the burglary and robbery charges. Nonetheless, the special circumstances still applied, because the jury, based on the DNA testimony and Jones’ admissions, found that he raped and killed Julia Miller.
In having sought the death penalty, prosecutors dramatically changed the strategies available to the defense.
“Death penalty litigation is literally another animal--there isn’t a penalty phase in any other type of case,” said Elisabeth Semel, past president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
In cases such as Simpson’s, where life without parole is the ultimate sentence, defendants generally have no incentive to acknowledge guilt unless they are offered a plea bargain or are seeking a reduced sentence.
But in capital cases, defendants faced with overwhelming evidence occasionally consider admitting their culpability during the initial guilt phase of the trial. The thinking is that by explaining the circumstances of the murder, they might win sympathy and understanding in the penalty phase.
“In general, if you look at the evidence and think you’ll probably lose, you’ll lose your credibility if you put on information (during the guilt phase) that would later be contradicted,” said Manaster.
But the strategy can backfire.
“If there’s even a lingering doubt as to guilt, that can be a factor when the jury considers imposing the death penalty,” said Los Angeles defense attorney Jill Lansing, who defended Lyle Menendez in his first trial. “Someone may say, ‘I cannot take the chance by some horrible quirk of fate that we’ve convicted an innocent man.’ ”
Jones, while on the witness stand, said he remembered grappling with Miller but was overcome by visions of his mother having sex with a man other than his father.
Jones said upon regaining clarity, “I remember being curled up in a ball crying, and I looked over at Mrs. Miller and she was lying there tied up and she was dead.”
During the penalty phase, the defense psychology expert testified that Jones suffered from mental problems and had a history of sex attacks that were not adequately treated in prison or later. The second expert testified that Jones was unlikely to cause problems in prison if incarcerated for life.
Neither argument proved persuasive.
“It was the rape that did it,” said jury foreman Reagan, the Los Angeles Public Library’s public information director. “It was a very, very brutal crime.
“(But) it was a very difficult thing to come to the decision,” he added. “We sat there and we didn’t see any beautiful people. We saw drug dealers and even when we got into people from the coroner’s office, this guy would have been torn apart to nothing by the team operating in the Simpson trial.
“This was probably as good an example of the two extremes in resources, and the lesson is, we have to find something in the middle.”
As Judge Ferns prepared to impose sentence, Manaster filed legal papers Wednesday seeking a new trial or a lesser sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
“It would be easy to merely affirm the jury’s finding,” wrote Manaster. “(But) the only possible basis for imposing death is for revenge, a reason particularly inappropriate for the actions of a severely mentally ill person.”
Ramseyer is preparing a written response, fully aware that if Jones is sentenced to death, it will serve merely as a preliminary step on a long legal highway.
“The appellate process in death penalty cases goes on and on,” he said. “It can go on for a decade.”
Pamela Miller, for her part, anxiously awaits the imposition of death on her former boyfriend. “Everybody has problems in their childhood, but they don’t grow up killing folks,” she said. “If you’re mad at your mother, kill your mother and leave mine alone.”
Meanwhile, life in the Criminal Courts Building goes on.
“There are six murder trials on the ninth floor alone, at least two where the prosecution is seeking death,” said Deputy Public Defender Charles Gessler. “And there are another seven murder cases elsewhere in the building.
“Thirteen murder trials! And in 12 of them, very few people are paying attention other than the attorneys, judges, jurors, court personnel and defendants.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.