Bakersfield gets ready for trial of school official
Students at Fremont Elementary School knew Vincent Brothers as the tall vice principal who would sometimes join them on the basketball court. In this oil-rich city, he commanded respect as a mentor and Christian family man.
Or so it seemed.
His estranged wife, Joanie Harper, their three young children and his mother-in-law were found shot and stabbed to death in their home July 8, 2003, in what Bakersfield police called the most gruesome crime they had ever seen.
Brothers, the sole suspect in the vicious slayings, was arrested nine months later and charged with five counts of first-degree murder. Opening statements are scheduled Wednesday in the former school administrator’s trial in Kern County Superior Court; he faces a possible death penalty.
Brothers, 44, has pleaded not guilty and says he was out of town when the bodies were found. But prosecutors say he staged a last-minute visit to his brother’s home in Ohio to create an elaborate, far-fetched alibi.
“Brothers’ former stature in the community makes this exceptional,” said Joseph Hoffmann, a death penalty expert at Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington. “That’s a significant hurdle for the prosecution to overcome.”
Fresh out of Cal State Bakersfield, Brothers started as a substitute teacher in the city’s schools in 1987. He quickly rose through the ranks to become vice principal of the grammar school by 1995. He planted roots in the city and was a regular at Sunday church services.
But Brothers appears to have had tumultuous relationships with women. Harper was his third wife -- the first two marriages having ended in divorce. In 1990, the year his first marriage ended, Brothers was convicted of spousal abuse, according to police. The second marriage lasted a few months and was described in court filings as “turbulent.”
Brothers and Harper married in January 2000, divorced and remarried. Their three children, Marques, Lyndsey and Marshall, were 4, 2 and 6 weeks old at the time of the killings. The fifth victim was Harper’s 70-year-old mother, Ernestine Harper.
Defense attorneys have suggested in recent court filings that others were responsible for the killings, but they did not elaborate.
According to Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Green, Brothers flew to Columbus, Ohio, then rented a car and drove back to Bakersfield to kill his family. The car’s odometer showed he had driven 5,400 miles about the time of the slayings. police said.
A criminal complaint also alleges that Brothers’ brother, Melvin, used his credit card and forged Vincent Brothers’ signature in Ohio on the day of the killings to help cover up the crime.
Jury selection has dragged on for weeks, mainly due to the intense publicity surrounding the case, while a gag order has prevented attorneys from discussing the case with the media. The two sides have filed nearly 150 motions, according to court clerks, and the trial could last months.
The list of potential witnesses -- filling 10 single-spaced pages -- includes many prominent Bakersfield residents, such as school administrators, preachers and fire officials.
Defense attorney Michael Gardina emphasized that point in a motion filed in late December seeking to move the trial to Los Angeles. “The death of the Harper family was a Kern County experience,” he wrote. “There is no chance of a fair trial here.”
Judge Michael Bush denied that request and a previous one from Gardina seeking a six-month delay.
For nearly three years, Brothers’ home has been the Kern County Jail, and he’s made numerous court appearances as lawyers fought over how -- and where -- the trial would be heard.
On a recent afternoon, he sat inside the dimly lighted courtroom, wearing a suit and glasses. He bit his lip a few times as Green sought to discredit a witness who defense attorneys said could prove police forced Melvin Brothers to make false declarations.
If Brothers is convicted, the scene is likely to repeat itself. Death penalty cases are automatically reviewed by the California Supreme Court in a process that can take decades.