A federal court jury was unable to reach a verdict Thursday in a $10-million wrongful death case in which an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was accused of killing a 26-year-old Van Nuys woman after a night of heavy drinking and sex.
The four-man, four-woman jury would have needed to reach a unanimous verdict to hold Robert Mallon, a 44-year-old sheriff’s detective in special investigations, responsible for the death of Catherine Braley seven years ago.
But after deliberating on the evidence for three days, the jury told U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer that they were unable to agree on a verdict. The jurors later told reporters they were hopelessly deadlocked, 4-4.
“We all tried very hard, but we just couldn’t agree,” said one juror, a woman who declined to give her name. “And there wasn’t any one issue that could have brought us together.”
Stephen Yagman, attorney for Braley’s stepmother, Linda Postma, said he will file a new lawsuit against Mallon and set up a status conference with Mallon’s attorneys in the next few weeks. Postma received court permission to pursue the case against Mallon after her husband and Braley’s father, Edward Postma, died.
Mallon, who admits having sex with Braley just hours before her strangled and bludgeoned body was discovered, was never charged with her murder. Los Angeles Police Detective Ted Ball said in an interview earlier this week that the investigation is still open but that Mallon is not a suspect.
Throughout the trial, Yagman, who specializes in suing police officers and departments, accused the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office of extending “professional courtesies” to Mallon by inadequately investigating the murder and refusing to prosecute him for the crime.
But Paul Paquette, one of Mallon’s attorneys, said police bent over backward to investigate Mallon to avoid criticism that they allowed a fellow law enforcement officer to get away with the crime. Police were so focused on investigating Mallon, he said, that they allowed the real killer to get away.
Braley was found strangled and beaten on the morning of Jan. 15, 1988, just hours after leaving the Hunter Bar in Van Nuys with Mallon and having sex with him in his unmarked county-owned car.
Mallon, who went to the bar with several other deputies after the funeral of a fellow sheriff’s deputy, admitted having at least 16 drinks at the bar. He said he left with Braley shortly before midnight and engaged in oral sex with her in his car. But he said they soon left the area and drove to a more secluded spot, where Braley decided to get out.
Yagman told the jury that Mallon failed in an attempt to have sex with Braley, flew into a rage when she then tried to leave and then killed her.
But Paquette dismissed Yagman’s version of events as a kind of “murder mystery novel,” and told the jury that physical evidence at the scene implicated Braley’s boyfriend, not Mallon, in her murder. The boyfriend, whose name was disclosed in court, was never charged for the crime.
Mallon, who has described the civil case as “a seven-year nightmare,” said Thursday he was disappointed by the jury’s inability to reach a verdict exonerating him and did not relish the prospects of going through another trial.
“The only thing I’m happy about is this jury concluded I did not kill,” Mallon said outside the courtroom. “I just can’t tell you how it tears a person down to be accused of such a violent crime, knowing the only thing you did was embarrass yourself, embarrass the Sheriff’s Department and violate the trust my wife had in me.”
Mallon’s wife, Sheryl, a bank personnel director, was in court during closing arguments but not Thursday, when the jury was dismissed. She clutched her arms and stared straight ahead during graphic descriptions of her husband’s sexual encounter with Braley, but said afterward she remained convinced he was not responsible for her death.
In interviews outside the courtroom, jurors said they were divided on the issue. Three women and one man wanted to hold Mallon responsible for Braley’s death, while one woman and three men did not, the jury foreman said.
Much of their deliberations centered on whether intoxicated people can be held responsible for their actions, the foreman said. And some jurors questioned whether Mallon was even capable of killing her while under the influence of so much alcohol, he said.
The jury’s inability to agree on Mallon’s liability drew different interpretations from attorneys on both sides of the case.
Anthony P. Serritella, one of Mallon’s attorneys, said the trial’s outcome vindicated Mallon.
“None of the jurors concluded that Robert Mallon killed Cathy Braley and the only reason that four of the eight . . . sided with the plaintiff is that they believe Mallon may have been negligent by dropping her off there late at night,” Serritella said. “It’s pretty clear that the jury has vindicated Robert Mallon in the sense that [they concluded] he is not the killer.”
But Yagman, who noted that several jurors criticized the LAPD’s investigation as sloppy and inadequate, drew a different conclusion from the jurors’ comments.
“The cloud over Mallon’s head remains because four independent people believe that he is responsible for Catherine Braley’s death,” Yagman said. “This verdict is not a vindication of anyone, but it is a stinging indictment of the LAPD.”