A jury Monday convicted Dana Point computer consultant Richard K. Overton in the deadly 1988 cyanide poisoning of his wife, bringing to a finale one of Orange County’s oddest and longest-running murder cases.
Overton, 66, sat impassively, as he did throughout the six-week retrial, shaking his head slightly after the verdict on a single charge of first-degree murder was read in Orange County Superior Court.
Jurors deliberated only six hours before deciding Overton poisoned Janet L. Overton, 46, an elected trustee of the Capistrano Unified School District who collapsed in the family’s driveway on her way to a whale-watching outing Jan. 24, 1988.
The bizarre case centered heavily on diary entries by Richard K. Overton that revealed the couple’s mutual hatred and the defendant’s bitter suspicion that his wife had numerous sexual affairs. A first trial ended in a mistrial in 1992, when Overton’s former defense attorney suffered a severe depression and could not continue.
Because the murder conviction carries a special circumstance of poisoning, Overton could receive a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole when he is sentenced Sept. 1 by Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald. Overton suffers from a heart ailment and family members said he has been in poor health in recent weeks.
“It was kind of a long one for us,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans, who said he was pleased and relieved by the verdict. “It’s a weird one.”
Jurors said they were persuaded of Overton’s guilt by the journal entries, scientific evidence and testimony that Overton had added drain cleaner and prescription drugs to drinks consumed by an ex-wife, Dorothy Boyer, who testified at both trials. Prosecutors contended that years before the slaying, Overton was slowly poisoning Janet Overton with the metal selenium and that the two women suffered nearly identical symptoms.
“Everything just added up,” said Michael Lyman, the jury foreman. “He has a sociopathic personality. He’s smiling to you at breakfast, but then you don’t know exactly what he’s got going on behind the eyes.”
Juror Art Shappy said the panel found it damaging that Overton had allegedly tampered with Boyer’s milk and coffee after the two divorced.
“It let us know he was capable of this,” Shappy said.
Overton’s defense attorney, George A. Peters, said after the verdict that his client “seems all right.”
Peters said he plans to ask for a new trial on the grounds the jury never should have heard about the alleged poisoning of Boyer. If that fails, Peters said, the issue should provide grounds for a strong appeal.
Jurors in the second trial did not hear damaging testimony offered in the original trial, when Overton admitted on the witness stand that he spiked Boyer’s coffee with prescription drugs, saying he thought it was “a neat joke.” But he denied tampering with her milk, wine and shampoo. Overton did not testify in the most recent trial.
Peters said he was surprised by the swiftness of the verdict, contending the jury must not have fully considered the complicated scientific evidence presented by the defense.
Peters had argued that Janet Overton was in ill health and died suddenly of natural causes. Some defense experts testified that the cyanide found in her stomach and blood may have resulted from her ulcer medication and was detected in amounts too minute to kill.
Robert D. Chatterton, Overton’s attorney during the first trial, said Monday the prosecution’s case rested largely on circumstantial evidence, including the prior alleged poisoning of Boyer and mysterious illnesses suffered by Janet Overton.
“My personal opinion was he wasn’t guilty,” Chatterton said. “I really expected that it would be a hung jury or not guilty. I didn’t expect a guilty verdict, but I’m looking at the scientific evidence.”
Overton’s fourth and current wife, Carol, decried the prosecution’s handling of the case, saying Evans relied on “innuendo” to persuade jurors her husband killed Janet Overton, his third wife.
“He didn’t do that,” she said.
“I’m shocked, totally shocked,” added Bill Lynam, a longtime friend of Richard and Janet Overton’s who attended the trial daily. “There was no smoking gun. They could not prove that Jan died of cyanide. . . . If I thought Richard had done her in, I wouldn’t be standing by him.”
But others, including Boyer, were less surprised by the verdict. Although she declined to comment directly on the verdict, Boyer said: “I thought (prosecutor) Chris Evans did a wonderful job.”
Another of Overton’s former wives exulted at the news of his conviction.
“Wonderful! Wonderful!” said Karoline Wallace, who had a daughter with Overton after marrying him in 1966. That marriage ended in annulment two years later, when she discovered he was married to Boyer at the same time.
“When this happened, I knew he was guilty, because he’s not a nice person,” she said.
Overton, a mathematician and computer expert with a doctorate in psychology, nearly got away with the crime, Evans said.
Janet Overton collapsed in the driveway as she and the couple’s son, Eric, were loading the family van for a whale-watching excursion. She was cremated and investigators were unable to determine the cause of her death for months, until Boyer called authorities claiming she had been poisoned years earlier.
Coroner’s officials re-examined tissue samples they had saved from the autopsy and determined Janet Overton died of cyanide poisoning.
Prosecutors said Richard Overton’s diary, coded in Spanish and Russian and so detailed it tracked his bowel movements, alluded repeatedly to a slow poisoning campaign using selenium.
Authorities said Overton had access to cyanide because he was part-owner in a mining operation.
Prosecutors suggested Overton resorted to killing his wife because Janet Overton refused to divorce him, though their marriage was in tatters. “Apparently he thought there was only one way out,” said juror Shappy.
In his diary, Richard Overton meticulously logged his wife’s whereabouts and made repeated mention of her “seduction gear.” He listed 17 men with whom he believed Janet Overton was having sexual liaisons. One of the men, a Capistrano school official, testified at both trials that he and Janet Overton had an affair in the 1980s for several years.
“I think a lot of people would look at this case and say Richard Overton got his just deserts today,” said Evans. “A lot of diabolical thought went into this.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Overton Trail
* Jan. 24, 1988: Janet L. Overton, wife of computer consultant Richard K. Overton, collapses in driveway of her Dana Point home and dies shortly thereafter; cause listed as unknown.
* July: Richard Overton’s ex-wife, Dorothy Boyer, tells investigators that in the early 1970s he tried to kill her through a process of slow poisoning by spiking her food and drink.
* Dec. 21: Amended death certificate reveals Janet Overton died of cyanide poisoning.
* Oct. 1, 1991: Grand jury hands down indictment charging Overton with first-degree murder in his wife’s death. He is arrested and later released on bail.
* June 9, 1992: Overton trial begins.
* July 22: During cross-examination, Overton admits he secretly spiked Boyer’s coffee with old prescription drugs because he thought it was “a neat joke,” denies poisoning Janet Overton.
* July 23: At hearing in judge’s chambers, Overton attorney Robert D. Chatterton accuses Overton of false testimony, asks to be removed from case. Overton rushed to hospital after complaining of chest pains and dizziness.
* Sept. 29: Jurors told case will be postponed six months. Judge does not reveal Chatterton is suffering from clinical depression, prompting postponement.
* Aug. 2, 1993: Appellate court orders mistrial, Chatterton’s removal as Overton attorney.
* Oct. 6: Court receives anonymous letter claiming Overton deliberately sabotaged his trial; Overton denies charge.
* May 28, 1994: Judge revokes Overton’s $100,000 bond, says enough evidence exists to hold him.
* March 28, 1995: Overton retrial begins.
* March 29: One Overton attorney, George A. Peters, contends Janet Overton died of heart failure, not cyanide poisoning.
* May 4: Case goes to jury.
* May 8: Jury convicts Overton after only six hours of deliberation. He faces possibility of life in prison without parole when sentenced Sept. 1.
Source: Times reports
Researched by SHELBY GRAD / For The Times