Framed, Chapter 5 : He blamed her — but would the jury buy it?
CHAPTER FIVE: THE TRIAL
It was my wife, Kent Easter told jurors.
She had become obsessed with destroying the PTA mom, he said. She had planted the pot and painkillers in Kelli Peters’ car. She had lured him into her criminal scheme. She was the reason he sat here today, his life a shambles, on trial for a felony.
Easter had taken the witness stand in his own defense, casting himself as a figure instantly familiar to aficionados of 1940s crime dramas: the hapless cuckold and sap, undone by a femme fatale and her noirish machinations.
It was a pitiable tale, but he was a hard man to warm up to. He had an air of bloodless detachment that came across as arrogance.
He had been a busy man, he explained, logging 200 billable hours a month for his big Newport Beach law firm, trying to appease a hectoring spouse who was never satisfied.
He knew that his wife, Jill, had been unfaithful to him, off and on, for years. “I felt that my job was to be a husband, to stay married,” Easter testified. “Nobody in our family had ever gotten divorced.”
As a glimpse into the toxic power dynamic of the marriage — as a window into his wife’s obsessiveness — Easter’s team presented Defense Exhibit L. It was an email she sent him in March 2010, he said, interrupting his workday.
The subject line: “Need to get serious.” The theme: how to crush the lowly school volunteer who, she insisted, had deliberately locked their 6-year-old son out of his elementary school a month before.
The email was a litany of demands. She wanted Kelli Peters’ background checked. She wanted her arrested. She wanted her slapped with a restraining order. She wanted to sue Peters, the school, the school district, the school board, the public-schools foundation. She wanted action by tomorrow.
The email ended in bold capitals: “WHY ARE WE LETTING THIS NO ONE ABUSE OUR SON AND THEN TRASH OUR FAMILY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!WHY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
There were 68 exclamation points, for anyone who cared to count.
“She thought I had let her down, that I had failed,” Easter said. “I hadn’t pushed hard enough on this.”
As her obsession with Peters intensified, he tried to be the reasonable one, the moderating force. He had not known of her scheme to frame Peters, he insisted.
In telling this story, Kent Easter had to explain away a big problem: It was his BlackBerry that had been pinging near Peters’ PT Cruiser in the predawn hours when the drugs were planted in a pouch behind the driver’s seat. His wife’s iPhone had been pinging at their Irvine home, a mile away.
Kent Easter was ready with an explanation: We swapped phones.
He had been at home, sleeping fitfully, sore from recent surgery. She had left her iPhone in their bedroom to charge and had taken his BlackBerry. He thought she was downstairs, tending to their sick daughter. Unbeknownst to him, she had slipped out to plant the drugs.
He was at work later that day, he said, when she called him to say she’d seen Peters popping pills and driving like a “madwoman” at Plaza Vista elementary in Irvine. She insisted that he call police, and he reluctantly agreed, afraid she would again belittle him as a failure.
To disguise himself, he gave police the first name that popped into his head, which happened to be “VJ Chandrasckhr,” based on an Indian neighbor. He had then tried his untrained best to mimic the man’s accent.
“It’s incredibly uncomfortable to sit here and listen to something so ridiculous,” Easter said after the call was played in court. “I feel stupid for having believed her and put my entire career and children in jeopardy.”
To flesh out its portrayal of Jill Easter as an overbearing shrew with a talent for weaponizing guilt, the defense played a tape of her haranguing her former lover, a married Los Angeles city firefighter who had been wired up by police. She accused him of abandoning her as police zeroed in on her and her husband as suspects.
“Don’t just put your head in the sand! This is the moment, this is when I needed someone and you turned your back on me!” she had cried. “And I will not survive this!”
It was a tone Kent Easter said he had heard before.
“That’s the voice that I hear when I saw the ‘need to get serious’ email,” he said. “That’s the voice that plays in my mind. I mean, that’s when she is upset about something and wants something.”
Now it was Christopher Duff’s turn to ask Easter a few questions, an opportunity the prosecutor relished.
Some prosecutors employed an aw-shucks persona, and some excelled at righteous indignation. Duff specialized in biting sarcasm. He had a stage-actor’s gift for outsize facial expressions, so jurors could read varieties of incredulity on his face from across the room.
The prosecutor stood in front of Kent Easter. He wanted to know why he remained married to Jill Easter, and in fact had been living with her until a month and a half earlier. How was this possible, considering all the ways she had betrayed him?
“Sir, this is the mother of my three children,” Easter said. “And my wife.”
Turning to the night of the drug-planting, Duff asked why Jill Easter would leave him her iPhone, whose passcode he claimed to possess, considering how easily he might have seen her trove of salacious exchanges with her latest lover.
“I mean, she has ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ on her cellphone, correct?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Duff was close enough to see that Easter, who had remained composed under his own attorney’s friendly questioning, seemed increasingly nervous. Easter said it just didn’t occur to him to look for her texts. “I had no idea they were in there, so I wouldn’t have known to look there or not,” Easter said.
“You knew your wife had already had one affair. You were concerned that she was out that night having another affair. And you had the one piece of evidence in your hand that could show you right then and there, correct?”
Duff now mocked the story of the smartphone swap. If his wife had really been sneaking around Peters’ apartment complex in possession of his BlackBerry, wouldn’t she have worried about it going off unexpectedly?
“And all of a sudden ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ starts playing on your ringtone?” Duff said.
“That was not my ringtone,” Easter said.
Everyone was waiting for Jill Easter to walk into the room.
She represented Kent Easter’s best chance at acquittal, thought Irvine Det. Mark Andreozzi, who sat beside the prosecutor.
The villain of her husband’s narrative, she had already pleaded guilty to her part in the crime. If she went to the witness stand and took the blame for everything — if she backed up his story and managed to come off as semi-credible — jurors might have reasonable doubt.
Duff expected the defense to call her. He was looking forward to the cross.
Instead, the defense rested.
They think they don’t need her, Duff thought. They think they’ve won.
The defense’s closing argument dwelled at length on Kent Easter’s cuckolding and Jill Easter’s supposed stratagems. It was a tale as superheated with intrigue and double-crosses as a pulp-fiction plot — lust, concocted alibis and frame-ups within frame-ups like Russian nesting dolls.
Her husband was her meal ticket, said defense attorney Thomas Bienert Jr., but the firefighter had her heart. On the very night she planted the drugs, the defense contended, she had found time to disappear for a tryst, which she recalled in a text to her lover the next morning: “Good morning you glorious man I am still swimming in romance.”
Bienert portrayed her as an imaginative schemer. Hadn’t she written a novel about “the perfect crime”? If the plot to frame the PTA mom unraveled, he said, Jill Easter had made sure that her husband’s DNA would be on the planted drugs so that he would take the fall. Her calculation even extended to devising an alibi video featuring herself and her sick daughter, with a time stamp meant to show she was home at the time of the crime, the defense argued.
“If somebody was going to go down for this, it had to be Kent, not her,” Bienert said. “He was expendable.”
The charge was one count of false imprisonment by fraud or deceit. The jury could not reach a verdict. Eleven wanted to convict. One woman felt sorry for Kent Easter.
Again a jury was selected, again Kelli Peters cried, again Kent Easter told his lamentable story. And once more, 10 months after the first trial, people watched and waited for Jill Easter’s entrance. She had finished her two-month jail term. This time, the defense called her into the courtroom. But there was a complication. She pointed to her ears, claiming hearing loss. She wanted more than a sign-language interpreter. She wanted a screen on which to read lawyers’ questions in real time.
At the prosecutor’s table, they believed this a ruse to throw off the cross-examination. It would be harder to trap her. She’d get extra seconds to process questions. The judge said she would have to make do with an interpreter like everyone else. The defense huddled, reconsidering the wisdom of putting her on the stand, and sent her home.
For Duff, there remained the challenge of trying to explain why the Easters wanted to ruin Kelli Peters in the first place. The provocation had seemed irrationally small. A school volunteer, Peters had inadvertently left the Easters’ 6-year-old son in the back recess yard for a few minutes one afternoon. Peters explained that the boy had been slow to line up after tennis class, which Jill Easter seemed to perceive as an insult to his intelligence.
“There’s a whole show, ‘Orange County Housewives,’ where all the housewives are crazy,” Duff told jurors in his closing statement. “This is the 21st century, where everyone thinks their son should be the star quarterback, star shortstop, batting first, whatever it is. Whatever happened, whatever their son said, got these two very upset and it escalated.”
As he had at the first trial, Duff emphasized that the Easters remained married. “How uncomfortable is it at the dinner table?” Duff asked. “‘Jill, can you pass me the mashed potatoes, please?’ ‘Yeah, OK.’ ‘Don’t frame me while you’re passing the mashed potatoes, please, though.’ Really? They’re still together.”
The most dramatic moments of the second trial came during Duff’s final remarks to jurors. He noted that the location of cellphones is knowable in three ways — when they ping against the nearest tower during calls, when texts are exchanged, and when automatic “data checks” monitor the devices’ health.
Until now, the data-check records — though put into evidence — had barely been mentioned. Irvine detectives had missed their significance during their investigation, as had Duff during the first trial. Preparing for this trial, however, Duff had pored over them carefully and discovered what he thought might destroy Kent Easter’s alibi for good.
It had long been established, from the text pings, that Jill Easter’s iPhone had been at the Easter home on the night in question.
For at least part of that night, however, the data checks indicated that her phone had also been near Peters’ apartment. It had been pinging off the local tower intermittently from midnight to 8 a.m.
The Easters had executed the plot together while a babysitter watched their kids, the prosecutor argued. One had planted the drugs while the other acted as the lookout.
Even if the Easters had swapped phones, the records put Kent Easter at the scene.
“Guess where her cellphone is?” Duff said. “By the victim’s house. Oops.”
This seemed to catch the defense flat-footed. Because he had already finished his closing argument, it was too late for Bienert to try to convince jurors this was junk science. After the jury left the room, he railed against the prosecutor. He said he had been sandbagged.
Duff replied that Easter’s team had had the phone records for years.
Either the defense had not looked at the records, Duff said, “or was hoping that I didn’t look at the records.”
Judge Thomas Goethals saw no reason Duff couldn’t save a good argument for the end.
“It seems to me Mr. Duff made a strategic decision,” he said.
The jury needed only two hours to decide. Guilty as charged.
Then came another surprise for the defense. The judge ordered Kent Easter taken into custody. Easter hadn’t expected this. He had made no arrangements for his three kids, for his bills. The judge gave him a day to arrange his affairs, “out of concern for nothing but your children.”
When he told his wife the news that day, Easter said later in court papers, she told him he should kill himself so she could collect on a $500,000 life-insurance policy, and when he refused she made other desperate suggestions — an escape to Belize with the kids, or her own suicide.
He stayed up that night comforting her as he closed down his practice, he added, and the next morning he found the search term “how to kill yourself” on her iPad.
Easter had already been in jail for five weeks when he stood before Goethals for sentencing in October 2014. He faced up to three years in state prison. Goethals made no secret of his contempt for Easter, but noted that the prisons were full.
“In a perfect world, I would send you to prison largely as a statement of disgust for what you and your wife did,” Goethals said. Instead, he sentenced him to 180 days in county jail, of which he would serve half, plus 100 hours of community service and three years’ probation.
Easter did his time without the luxury of anonymity. Inmates recognized him from TV, and some thought he ought to be taken down. One day, he said, two of them knocked him down and bloodied his nose. He cleaned floors and toilets, and read “Game of Thrones” paperbacks.
More than once, inmates asked him for legal advice. Some of them he liked. He had been an ardent Republican with little sympathy for lawbreakers, but now he pondered the colossal waste of time and talent exacted by the system.
He had filed for divorce just before his second trial, and he was still serving his time when Jill Easter petitioned for custody of their three kids. Their dueling court filings provided as close a glimpse of their relationship as outsiders were ever likely to get.
She wrote of his “instability and irrational behavior” and described him as an angry workaholic and heavy drinker, prone to mood swings, who would isolate himself from his family by locking himself in the bathroom.
She said he blamed his drinking on his difficult relationship with his Catholic parents, who had rejected her as a non-Catholic. She said he had threatened to take the kids if she didn’t plead guilty to the drug-planting.
“I am trapped in an endless cycle of lashing out at you — even after using you as a human shield,” he wrote to her from jail, according to her court filings. “I am sick.…”
Released from jail in December 2014, he complained in his own court papers that she wouldn’t let him talk to their kids, wouldn’t give him updates on the family cat and wouldn’t give him the airway machine he needed for his sleep apnea.
The criminal case had exacerbated their fights, he said in the filing, and she once pepper-sprayed his face in a rage. Helpless to stop her affairs, he said he needed a DNA test to prove his daughter was his.
He said she used the word “Orange” when she wanted him to stop talking about a subject, like finances, that made her too anxious. After her release from jail, he said, she became depressed, took anti-anxiety medication and binged on Netflix for days.
Later, after they agreed to joint custody, he retracted his pepper-spray accusation.
“Moreover, Jill Easter has never been violent towards me or physically harmed me in any way,” he wrote. “She was only ever loving and caring.”
Duff, the prosecutor, thought justice had been served. But after two criminal trials, there remained an irreducible mystery at the heart of it — what had prompted the Easters to go to such astonishing lengths over a slight so small. “The story that hasn’t been told is why these people did it,” Duff said. “Everyone asks me, and I have no answer.”
Rob Marcereau, an attorney whose Foothill Ranch law office was decorated with images of vintage motorbikes, shark fins and bright green U.S. currency, wanted answers himself. He represented Kelli Peters in her civil suit against the Easters.
He had waited patiently through the criminal trials, waited for Kent Easter to serve his time, waited for his crack at the man and his wallet. And now, in a December 2015 deposition, he faced Easter across a table.
Easter was now a convicted felon, disgraced, on probation, his law license suspended, his disbarment pending. Still the law threatened to exact a further price — monetary damages for Peters’ emotional distress — and still he would not surrender an inch of ground or a ray of clarity.
“At some point in 2010 or 2011, did you and your wife hatch a plan to plant drugs in Kelli Peters’ car and have her arrested?” asked Marcereau.
“I have testified at length about this in two proceedings, and my testimony is what it is,” Kent Easter said.
Marcereau persisted: “I’m entitled to an answer.”
Easter said: “I’ve answered that twice in criminal court.”
“That means nothing,” Marcereau said. “I need an answer, sir, or else I’ll move to compel. I’ll seek sanctions.”
“OK. You can do that. I’ve answered it.”
“You haven’t answered it, sir.”
Easter insisted he didn’t know who planted the drugs.
“Did your wife ever tell you that she did it?”
“I can’t answer that question due to spousal confidential communication.”
Marcereau went at it again. “Sir, did you knowingly participate in a scheme with your wife to frame Kelli Peters?”
“No.” He felt sorry for Kelli Peters, Easter said, but he had been through some terrible experiences himself. “I don’t feel that she should have been as upset as she has been.”
Marcereau asked, “So you think what you’ve gone through is worse than what you and your wife put Mrs. Peters through?”
“I know that.”
Marcereau asked, “Don’t you think you’d feel better if you just said, ‘You know what? I did it. I screwed up. I regret it. I’m sorry’? Wouldn’t that feel good just to say that?”
“Is this a therapy session or a deposition?”
“I would love to get some candor out of you after all of this,” Marcereau said. “Can’t you just admit what you did?”
COMING SUNDAY: RUIN