It has all the trappings of a routine murder trial: blood samples, eyewitness accounts and a motive of thwarted passion.
But jurors in the case against Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert J. Mallon will not decide his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt"--just whether the evidence tips the scales enough to find him liable for a homicide seven years ago.
Deliberations are set to begin Tuesday in the unsolved murder of Catherine Braley, a 26-year-old clerk whose bludgeoned body was found in January, 1988, in the parking lot of a county counseling center in Van Nuys.
Although Mallon admits he had sex with Braley the night of her death while he was off-duty, he denies killing her and his lawyers say that forensic evidence exists that could exonerate him.
Jurors will consider the case against Mallon not in the Los Angeles Criminal Courts building, but in U.S. District Court across the street, where Braley’s relatives have filed a $10-million, federal wrongful-death case against him.
Stephen Yagman, a Venice attorney who specializes in police brutality cases and represents Braley’s stepmother, Linda Postma, said the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office did not adequately investigate the murder and refused to prosecute Mallon, a colleague, for the crime. The lawsuit, he contends, represents the family’s only hope of establishing who killed Braley.
But Mallon--who in an interview Friday described the case as “a seven-year nightmare"--said the only reason Yagman sued him is because “that attorney doesn’t like cops.”
“If I was with McDonnell Douglas punching rivets, I wouldn’t be here,” said Mallon, who has remained a sheriff’s deputy and is assigned to special investigations.
The case against Mallon is one of several recent lawsuits in which the families of homicide victims have attempted to prove in civil court the guilt of someone who has not been convicted of the crime, or even criminally charged. While experts say the circumstances leading to such cases are unusual, the common thread among all of them is the pursuit of money.
“It’s not a trend, but it does happen occasionally--especially when there are assets there,” said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.
Just last week, the sons of Delores Jackson, former sister-in-law of pop superstar Michael Jackson, filed a civil wrongful-death suit against businessman Donald J. Bohana, whom they accuse of drowning her. Because the Van Nuys resident died while Bohana was in bankruptcy, the suit was filed in federal Bankruptcy Court to allow her children to make claims on his assets.
Although the Los Angeles County coroner has ruled Jackson’s death an “assisted drowning” in Bohana’s pool, the ex-boyfriend has yet to be charged with a crime or to be named as a suspect. Outraged survivors allege that Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti is not pursuing the case because he is angry that singer Michael Jackson eluded prosecution last year after being accused in a civil suit of molesting a 13-year-old fan.
Similarly, in May, Ronald Goldman’s father and sister filed a wrongful-death suit against O. J. Simpson contending that the ex-football star “brutally murdered” the 25-year-old waiter--even though the criminal case against Simpson is far from over. Goldman’s mother has filed a separate claim, also to protect her rights to sue before the statute of limitations runs out.
In March, Vietnam veteran Guy Dean Bouck was charged with murdering his wife, Stephanie, five years after a probate judge ruled that he had “most likely” killed her and therefore should inherit nothing from her estate.
The probate case was filed by the dead woman’s daughter, Debi Carll, who believed Bouck was guilty long before police had enough evidence to prosecute him.
Yagman has used the federal court setting before to raise allegations of wrongful death against law enforcement officers who remained uncharged.
In 1992, a federal jury awarded more than $44,000 to family members of three men killed by Los Angeles police in a McDonald’s restaurant robbery in Sunland. The jury found the deaths wrongful even though the officers were not criminally prosecuted for the slayings.
But a wrongful-death case filed by Yagman on behalf of one of the robbers’ unborn children was not successful. In February, a federal jury awarded Johanna Trevino $1, saying the girl suffered no real damages from the loss of a father she had never known.
Some lawyers say they are troubled by such “private prosecutions.”
Yvonne Renfrew, who represented Bouck during probate proceedings, said such cases differ from ordinary wrongful-death cases arising from accidents because the defendant faces the possibility of being stigmatized as a killer.
“It’s not like you ran into my car,” Renfrew said. “It carries more burdens than the ordinary civil judgment and it’s something that deserves more thought . . . especially because the standard of proof is lower.”
The lower standard of proof required in the Mallon case could be a significant factor in its outcome.
The seven-day trial opened Aug. 17 before a panel of nine jurors in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer. It began with testimony from Mallon, who described how he and Braley became intoxicated at a now-closed Van Nuys bar, the Hunter, and left to have sex in his county-owned car on the night of Jan. 14, 1988.
He maintained that Braley was alive when she left his car, just hours before her body was found strangled and mutilated, her face crushed in by a cement block.
But in closing arguments Friday, Yagman said that Mallon changed his story several times.
For instance, Mallon initially told police he did not have sex with Braley, then later admitted in interviews with detectives that he engaged in oral copulation with her. And only later did he describe his failure to achieve an erection during a second episode, Yagman said.
“He was drunk, frustrated and angry,” Yagman told jurors. “It is logical to believe in this case that the defendant wanted to hurt [Braley] badly, because he couldn’t perform sexually or because he was angry. . . . Catherine Braley is dead and the evidence in the case is that the defendant killed her.”
One of Mallon’s attorneys, Paul Paquette, dismissed Yagman’s version of events as a kind of “murder mystery novel.” Mallon, he said, cooperated with the police investigation, and searches of his clothes and car turned up no blood or other incriminating evidence.
“We’re looking for blood, lots of blood,” Paquette said, “because whoever committed this crime had blood on them.”
In fact, Paquette noted, although blood samples taken from Braley’s battered body matched Mallon’s blood type, they also matched that of her live-in boyfriend, who was also never charged. No other physical evidence was presented to implicate the sheriff’s deputy, the defense lawyer continued.
Instead, Paquette told the jury, there was more evidence to link Braley’s boyfriend to her death, including a screwdriver found at the scene and apparently used to torture Braley. The 12-inch implement was missing from an otherwise complete set of tools found in her boyfriend’s truck, Paquette said.
Paquette suggested that police were so intent on investigating Mallon to avoid allegations of favoritism toward a fellow officer that they allowed the real killer to get away.
“You’re not on a criminal case,” Paquette told the jury. “It’s not your job to convict someone here. . . . There’s a complete absence of evidence.”
Even if jurors disagree with that, it is unlikely Mallon will be criminally charged, authorities said.
Police ruled him out as a suspect shortly after the murder. And a recent DNA analysis excluded him as the killer, said Assistant City Atty. Byron R. Boeckman, who has been monitoring the case for the Los Angeles Police Department, which handled the investigation.
But the genetic sampling, submitted to a laboratory at the request of the defense, was not admitted as evidence because Mallon’s lawyers failed to bring to court lab technicians who could discuss their technique and results.
Said Paquette’s partner, Anthony P. Serritella: “We believed we were not required to do that in a civil case.”