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Jury Finds O.C. Playground Killer Sane

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Setting the stage for a possible death sentence, an Orange County jury Monday concluded that Steven Allen Abrams was sane when he drove his car through a Costa Mesa playground last year, killing two toddlers and injuring five others.

The question of Abrams’ sanity was the most contentious aspect of the two-month trial because defense attorneys conceded early on that Abrams intentionally rammed his Cadillac into the crowded playground.

Jurors heard from 47 witnesses--many of them psychiatrists--as defense lawyers argued that schizophrenia prevented Abrams from understanding it was wrong to kill. Abrams told several doctors he plotted the attack for more than a year, hoping the government would stop invading his brain with radio waves if he killed young “innocents.”

Prosecutors, however, blamed any mental defect on Abrams’ drug use and maintained that the defendant was sane at the time of the crash.

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The jury will now return to court Thursday to begin hearing testimony on whether Abrams should receive the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The penalty phase is expected to last about a week.

Despite the 19 days of expert testimony, it took the jury less than three hours to reject the insanity defense--about the same time it took them to convict Abrams of murder in August for the deaths of Sierra Soto, 4, and Brandon Wiener, 3.

Cindy Soto, clutching a photograph of her slain daughter, gasped and then cried after a court clerk announced the jury’s decision. Wiener’s parents held hands and fought back tears. Relatives and supporters of both families declined to comment after the verdict.

Had the jury found Abrams, 39, not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have been sentenced to a state mental hospital and detained until a judge concluded he was sane.

Charles Nowlin, a witness to the attack and one of a handful of bystanders who frantically tried to free children who were pinned beneath Abrams’ car, expressed relief Monday over the jury’s verdict.

“It was the right decision,” said Nowlin, who testified during the trial. “Now we’ll be free from him, and he won’t be able to do it again.”

But one veteran defense attorney said he was troubled by the jury’s swift decision, saying it was a sign the defense had trouble getting the panel to cast aside its outrage about the crime.

“That shows you they didn’t consider the evidence,” Santa Ana lawyer John Barnett said. “Jurors just disfavor this kind of defense. And for them to spend less than three hours on that issue . . . that speaks for itself.”

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In closing arguments last week, Deputy Public Defender Denise Gragg implored jurors to find Abrams not guilty by reason of insanity. She noted he had been hospitalized several times with psychological problems in the years before the attack.

Also, Gragg said, Abrams for several years had confided to friends and relatives that a government entity he called the “brain wave police” were beaming him instructions to kill. By killing innocent children, Abrams said, he would silence his tormentors.

To support the insanity theory, attorneys called witnesses who observed Abrams commit a series of bizarre acts over the years. One saw him seated one day in a lawn chair, holding a fishing pole with the line cast into the street. Others said he often thought a secret entity communicated to him through numbers. He once said he thought it was no coincidence his street address included the numbers “187,” California’s penal code section for murder.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Debora Lloyd, however, called experts who said Abrams’ delusions were more likely the result of methamphetamine abuse than psychosis. Mental illness induced by drugs does not fit California’s insanity threshold.

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The prosecutor also noted that Abrams acted out while seeking attention from a former neighbor with whom he had a prior romantic liaison; he previously was convicted of stalking the woman.

Lloyd said Abrams told police the attack would send a message to a judge who sentenced him to jail for stalking the ex-girlfriend.

Prosecutors charged that Abrams barreled into the South Coast Early Childhood Learning Center on May 3, 1999, after getting into a traffic altercation on the Costa Mesa Freeway.

The center recently closed. Lawsuits brought against the school by the two slain children’s families are still pending.

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