A federal appeals court decided Tuesday that a woman acquitted of killing a model and aspiring actress in 2008 may sue a Santa Monica police detective for allegedly dissuading a defense witness from testifying during the murder trial.
A panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided 2 to 1 to reinstate the lawsuit by Kelly Soo Park, who was acquitted of the strangling murder of model Juliana Redding in her Santa Monica residence.
Park, who now faces fraud charges in a separate case, contended in her suit that Santa Monica police Det. Karen Thompson intimidated a witness who would have implicated someone else in Redding's killing.
The suit, which U.S. District Judge S. James Otero had dismissed, dealt with Park's attempt during the 2013 murder trial to implicate John Gilmore, the victim's boyfriend, as the actual killer.
The court alleged Gilmore had a history of domestic violence and had previously assaulted Redding.
Park's suit said that Melissa Ayala, Gilmore's former girlfriend, planned to testify that Gilmore had choked her three times and had mentioned Redding's killing during one of the incidents.
Ayala eventually decided to invoke her 5th Amendment right not to testify only because Thompson had intimidated her, the suit said.
"Park was deprived of her principal and apparently sole defense — that a third party was guilty of the murder — due to Thompson's alleged interference with Ayala's testimony," Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Carter appointee, wrote for the majority.
Prosecutors argued that Gilmore had been ruled out as a suspect. They based their case against Park on DNA found throughout the victim's home, including on Redding's neck.
They argued that Park attacked Redding at the behest of a doctor who had previously dated the victim and who was upset that the victim's father had pulled out of a business deal.
Defense lawyers countered that Park's DNA could have been transferred from somewhere else to the murder scene.
Although Park and Redding did not know each other, both had been in the home of the doctor who allegedly arranged the attack.
In a partial dissent, Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez said Thompson never threatened Ayala or tried to prevent her from testifying.
"I recognize that Thompson entered dangerous territory when she decided to talk to Ayala and tell her that she was not required to speak further to Park's investigators," wrote Fernandez, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush.
That decision "may not have been wise," Fernandez said, "but it was not disastrous."
He said that Ayala refused to testify because she was facing criminal charges in another case.
"The district court was not required to accept the fantasy … that Ayala would have blithely incriminated herself were it not for the conversation she had with Thompson," Fernandez wrote.
The court did not decide whether the detective had immunity from such suits, leaving that call to the district judge.