A Torrance Superior Court judge rejected a defense bid to toss out a murder conviction Friday because a prosecutor had argued to separate juries that two different defendants fired the one bullet that killed a local drug dealer.
In a ruling that divided legal experts, Judge Francis J. Hourigan said Deputy Dist. Atty. Todd Rubenstein's arguments to the separate juries were not grounds for a new trial for 21-year-old John Patrick Winkelman of Torrance.
Hourigan proceeded to sentence Winkelman to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the Oct. 29, 1995, shooting death of Willie Yen, noting that Yen's life was lost in "the most violent, vicious way."
Winkelman, who was convicted of murder in March along with co-defendant Stephen Edmond Davis, showed no emotion as he was led away by bailiffs--even when he glanced at his mother, whose heaving sobs echoed across the wood-paneled courtroom.
Rubenstein said afterward that he was gratified by the judge's rulings.
He said his remarks to the separate juries--he had first argued to the Winkelman jury that Winkelman fired the fatal shot, then argued the next day to the Davis jury that Davis was the shooter--had "zero effect" on the "ultimate verdict."
Southwestern Law School professor Robert Pugsley said Rubenstein stands on solid legal ground because there's nothing to prevent a prosecutor from arguing different facts to different juries in the same trial.
The "messy" result, Pugsley admitted, "doesn't come out clean for the public." But he said, "I'm not sure it's unjust."
Winkelman's defense attorney, Peter Giannini, countered: "It doesn't make sense. It can't be true. These kinds of things shouldn't be allowed to stand in a moral society."
Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said any attempt to justify the convictions in the case was "sophistry," the sort of "argument that could only fool a lawyer."
He added: "You know what bothers me about this horribly? I've discussed this with I don't know how many people . . . and I mean the best and the brightest. And do you know what everyone has said: Isn't this what all lawyers do?
"Good God, no," Reiner continued, adding, "This is not what all lawyers do. This is not what lawyers should do. And this is certainly not what a prosecutor should do."
The complicated case played out before two juries because Davis had spoken at length with detectives, and Winkelman had refused to talk to police. Rather than proceed with two trials, one after the other, Hourigan opted for separate juries, each of which heard differing portions of the case.
Winkelman's case hinged on the testimony of Adam Asbury, a regular in Torrance's Entradero Park, where Yen was killed. Asbury said he looked up after hearing the squeal of tires to see someone running after a car while holding a gun and firing.
The gunman came up alongside the driver's side of the car, shot the driver and pulled him from the vehicle, Asbury testified.
Yen, who had been driving the car, was shot just once, in the upper back. The bullet ripped down toward his heart, slicing an artery.
Later, Asbury identified Winkelman as the gunman. At the trial, he said he was "100% certain," according to court documents.
Davis, meanwhile, said he had been the one running behind the car.
He said that Winkelman had gotten into the car next to Yen and pulled a gun, and that a struggle followed in the car.
Davis said he heard shots and went running toward the vehicle, firing his own gun, eventually coming up along the driver's side.
Davis said he did not, however, fire the fatal shot. He intimated that it was Winkelman who shot Yen.
In court, Winkelman's defense was that he was not in the park when Yen--whom authorities describe as a methamphetamine dealer--was shot. Rubenstein, however, has said that both Davis and Winkelman were there, that both were armed and that both fired their guns.
Ballistics tests on the bullet that hit Yen were inconclusive.
In making his closing arguments to both juries, Rubenstein stressed to each the traditional rule that both a gunman and an accomplice can be convicted of murder. He said it really didn't matter who fired the fatal round.
But he also went on to tell the Winkelman jury: "The evidence is manifest. It's unrefuted that John Winkelman is the actual killer."
The next day, he told the Davis jury that it was "quite clear" that Davis was the gunman.
Both juries returned guilty verdicts.
Giannini said after the hearing Friday that he intends to appeal Winkelman's conviction.
Meanwhile, Davis' attorney, Robert E. Courtney, has also asked for a new trial on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. A hearing is set for Friday before Hourigan.
Courtney, who was in court Friday, declined to comment afterward.