As the word “guilty” rang out in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Sheriff’s Det. Jeffrey Leslie turned toward a woman seated behind him in the audience.
It was a moment the two had awaited for 15 years since 4-year-old Lauren Sarene Key had fallen to her death from a Rancho Palos Verdes cliff.
Leslie’s eyes brimmed with tears as he watched Lauren’s mother, Sarah Key-Marer, gasp and sob with her head tilted up toward the ceiling, tears spilling down her cheeks.
Jurors on Wednesday found the girl’s father, Cameron Brown, 53, guilty of first-degree murder in his daughter’s death. Brown, a former airport baggage handler, was accused of deliberately throwing the girl from the cliff to avoid paying child support.
As the verdict was read, Brown sat motionless with his eyes locked on the courtroom clerk announcing the jury’s finding.
The jury’s decision marked the end of the third trial in the case. Two juries previously deadlocked over whether Brown intentionally threw his daughter or whether her fall was a tragic accident.
Leslie, who has handled the case since the girl’s death in 2000, said he immediately felt relief after hearing the verdict.
“I was relieved for her,” Leslie said of Key-Marer. “I’ve been doing this job for 16 years. I don’t believe in closure anymore. I just hope we brought justice to Lauren and her family.”
After the verdict was read, Key-Marer rushed out to the hallway, hugging jurors.
“Thank you, thank you,” she told the jury’s foreman.
Key-Marer said that after nearly 15 years and three trials all she wanted was for Brown to take responsibility for what happened to their daughter. She kept faith that justice would be served, she said.
“Lauren was our gift from God, the best thing to ever happen to us,” she said. “We just learned to live with the pain.”
She added: “There are no winners here, certainly not for Cameron’s family, and not for ours.”
Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Aron Laub said the case should never have been prosecuted as a murder. Brown did not intentionally kill his daughter, he said.
“I believe in our jury system,” he said. “But I can’t believe that this was a just verdict.”
Brown’s first trial ended in 2006, with two jurors voting to convict him of first-degree murder, eight voting for second-degree murder and two favoring manslaughter. In 2009, a jury split evenly between second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum said the latest jury was able to recognize that Brown was motivated by revenge and a deep hatred for Key-Marer, and that he plotted to kill the girl to hurt her mother.
“No jurors have ever voted not guilty,” he said. “It’s been a long time — it’s been 15 years — and we finally have justice for Lauren.”
Hum said this trial included new evidence unearthed by Leslie, including a former co-worker of Brown who testified about conversations with him on the difficulty of paying child support. The man testified that Brown once said it would be nice if they could just get rid of the children.
“We just kept digging,” Leslie said.
Greg Apodaca, the third jury’s foreman, said it took only a day of deliberations for the jury to come to an agreement. A key to the case, he said, was an expert witness who said the girl’s injuries were inconsistent with a slip or trip and instead suggested that she was thrown from the bluff. The forensics expert testified that Lauren’s body lacked the scratches to her body that a slip or fall would have caused.
Another important factor, Apodaca said, was a jury visit to the cliff where Lauren died. Last week, jurors hiked up to Inspiration Point, where, according to prosecutors, Brown threw Lauren onto the rocks and water below.
“It didn’t seem likely that a 4-year-old girl would be up there playing on the ledge,” Apodaca said.
Before starting their deliberations Tuesday morning, jurors heard rival narratives of what happened atop the cliff on Nov. 8, 2000.
Brown’s attorney argued that his client loved and cared for Lauren and that the girl was playing near the cliff’s edge when she slipped and fell to her death.
In his closing arguments, Laub told jurors that evidence in the case did not prove Brown set out to kill his child, but instead painted him as a lousy father and unlikable person. The prosecution of Brown, who was arrested in 2003, was propelled by an emotional reaction to the death of a young child, he said.
Hum, however, described Brown as a coldhearted, vindictive man who never wanted the child. Brown, he argued, mustered only a halfhearted attempt at rescuing the girl after the fall and was indifferent and uninterested in the hours and days that followed.
In addition to the guilty verdict, jurors found true the special circumstance allegations of lying in wait and acting for financial gain.
Brown faces a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 19.
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