Defense attorney: Client killed pregnant woman

SANTA ANA — In an attempt to soften jurors' views of his client ahead of a possible death sentence, a public defender Monday morning admitted during opening statements that his client raped and stabbed a woman to death in Costa Mesa in 1988.

"This is a horrible case, you don't have to make it worse than it already is," deputy public defender Thomas J. Lo told the jury at his client's murder trial in Santa Ana's Central Justice Center. "Hold him accountable for what he did, and only what he did."

What prosecutors allege, and Lo acknowledged to the jury, was that Jason Balcom walked into Malinda and Kent Gibbons' apartment on July 18, 1988, and sodomized and killed Malinda Gibbons while her husband was at work.

Balcom, now 41, is charged with murder during the commission of sodomy, rape, robbery and burglary.

The alleged three-time rapist choked and tied up the 22-year-old, six-week-pregnant newlywed with her husband's ties and belts before raping her on her bedroom carpet and stabbing her in the heart, prosecutors claim.

Balcom stole her wedding ring and purse after the slaying, prosecutors said.

Lo said Balcom got the knife from the home's dishwasher and wielded it to "intimidate" Gibbons because she put up a fight.

"He got a knife. We don't know what happened in that apartment other than Malinda Gibbons was sexually assaulted and stabbed by Mr. Balcom," Lo told the jury, some of whom left the courtroom in tears when the trial broke for lunch.

As Lo described the case, Balcom kept his eyes downward, focused on the notes he took from the defendant's table. He wore a tailored charcoal gray suit over a merlot shirt and brown, patterned tie.

Nearly 24 years after the slaying, Kent Gibbons was visibly devastated Monday. Sitting in court during opening statements, he began to tremble with emotion and looked away when jurors were shown a photo of the crime scene, with his wife's body left partially disrobed and bloody on the apartment floor.

On the stand, he testified that everything was looking up for him and his wife before the killing. They were newly married and transplanted from Utah, where Kent Gibbons made $5 an hour at Big-O Tires and Malinda handled Big-O's credit account as an employee at Key West bank.

After about a year of working with Malinda, Kent Gibbons finally asked her out. Eight months later, they were engaged. In the courtroom, Balcom watched intently, staring at Kent Gibbons while he testified.

Kent and Malinda Gibbons shared their Mormon faith and aspirations for a family, Kent Gibbons said, and when he was offered a high-paying job at Western Digital in Irvine, the two jumped at the chance.

"We really wanted children, so she was already buying stuff in preparation for babies," Gibbons said on the stand Monday. "I'd always say, 'Honey, we don't have kids,' and she'd say, 'That's all right because I want to be prepared.'"

But there was no preparing Gibbons for what he found when he got home. His wife loved the sunshine and kept the apartment's drapes open. But that night the blinds were closed and it was dead silent.

"It was really, really dark, almost pitch black," Gibbons recalled for the jury. "Like if you've been in a cave where you can't see two inches in front of you."

The young software engineer walked through the home calling to his wife until he found her body. She'd been dead for hours.

Laying the foundation for the death penalty phase of the trial if Balcom is convicted, Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy told jurors about Balcom's other reported run-ins with the law.

Balcom, who was 18 at the time of the killing, had been released from juvenile hall weeks earlier after serving six months for theft. Two days before the killing, Murphy said, Balcom raped another woman in Costa Mesa.

At the time, Balcom was a security guard with a car that had a light bar on the roof, similar to those on a police car except yellow. On July 16, 1988, Balcom pulled a woman over, then got into the passenger side of her car, punched her in the face and raped her, Murphy said.

On July 24, 1988, six days after Malinda Gibbons' killing, Balcom forced a woman into her Santa Ana home at gunpoint and raped her, Lo said.

Lo said the woman described Balcom as "polite, clean and well educated."

Except for the rape, "he caused no harm to her," Lo said, part of his strategy ahead of the jury considering the death penalty.

Balcom didn't have a father growing up and his mother was mentally ill, Lo said.

During the alleged string of rapes, Balcom lived with his mother and aunt in Costa Mesa's Ha Penny Inn, now the Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Harbor Boulevard. By early September 1988, Balcom moved with his mother to Michigan.

There, prosecutors said he struck again. Balcom took a woman's car at gunpoint and drove her to a secluded area and raped her. When she tried to escape, he dragged her naked back to the car.

He kept the car but when he let her go, Balcom gave her a blanket, Lo told the jury.

"She was left unharmed, other than, of course, the rape," he said.

Balcom has been serving a 30- to 50-year prison sentence for that incident since 1988. Costa Mesa detectives linked him to the Gibbons murder after Michigan authorities submitted his DNA to a national database.

Prosecutors estimate this portion of the trial will last the week. If Balcom is convicted, the jury will listen to a second round of testimony where they will consider if he should receive the death penalty or life without parole.

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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