SANTA ANA — While convicted murderer and rapist Jason Michael Balcom sat and showed no emotion, attorneys explained to jurors during the penalty phase of the trial Wednesday why they should vote for death or life without parole for the killing of Malinda Gibbons.
Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy took issue with the idea that anything in Balcom's childhood was significant enough to influence his decision to rape and murder the young, pregnant Costa Mesa resident in 1988.
Instead, he said, Balcom, 41, did it because he chose to.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version incorrectly listed Jason Michael Balcom's age as 42. At the time this article was written, he was 41. His birthday was Monday.
"He did it because he liked it," Murphy said in the Central Justice Center courtroom. "He wanted to do it. He did it. He liked it and he did it again."
Deputy public defender Dolores Yost told jurors the cumulative effect of Balcom's unstable childhood was enough to affect the impulses of the then-18-year-old.
His age should not be an excuse, Murphy said, because Balcom was old enough to decide what to do and to know what he was doing.
"How old do you have to be before you understand the look of terror in someone's eyes?" he asked.
Along with his youth and negative childhood, Yost said what should be considered when considering death or life without parole is Balcom's intention.
She said the fact that he did not kill the woman he raped before Gibbons, or the two he raped after — and the fact that he likely used a knife from Gibbons' home to kill her — meant he did not plan to murder. Not planning the murder, she said, makes it spontaneous; therefore he is less culpable.
Murphy argued that Balcom's youth was no more harsh than the typical child living in just about any Southern California community.
He said nothing from Balcom's childhood would explain what he did — he played sports and had a buffer to his moody mom in his aunt and cousin.
He said the defense consistently took acorns and grew them into oak trees, as in the testimony that Balcom's mom used cocaine in the 1970s, which turned into her being a drug abuser.
Testimony that Balcom was sexually abused was another example, Murphy said. He argued that most of the sexual abuse brought up in the trial was not certain. Balcom did not remember an incident his cousin related about abuse by a male babysitter when the two were about 7.
Balcom told doctors he remembers being abused by convicted child sex offender, Essex Morse, who was his mother's boyfriend. But, Murphy said, that abuse was horrible but mild compared to some and doesn't compare to the kind of abuse Balcom inflicted on his four rape victims.
Yost argued that the jury did not need to see the abuse and Balcom's crimes as comparable, just that the abuse affected his behavior and was a mitigating factor.
She argued that the cumulative affect of Balcom's childhood is meant to explain the rage, not justify it.
"It is the product of shame and a sense of worthlessness," Yost said.
She brought up testimony that, according to his aunt, Balcom's mother did not want him around, that she once hit him with a 2-by-4 and she brought a string of men into her home, including a sex offender and a man arrested multiple times on drug charges.
Yost said the aunt also testified Balcom would be made to eat food from the trash or the ground — once because he had eaten her hamburger, and once because he had cut off his crust.
Balcom's mother, Laura, killed herself by laying on a train track when the Gibbons' murder case was being investigated, according to both attorneys.
"Her method of suicide was consistent with her overall life pattern," Yost said. "It was consistent with a borderline personality diagnosis."
After describing Gibbons' rape and murder in detail, Murphy asked the jury to imagine what Gibbons, the gagged victim, may have been trying to scream out in her last moments.
"She cried out for someone — someone help, don't let him get away with this," he said. "Her neighbors couldn't hear her. The police couldn't do anything then. The only people who can do something about it is you."
Yost later reminded the jury that they promised not to let emotion or the desire for vengeance determine their decision. She said along with the abuse and age, the fact that he had the opportunity to kill again and didn't means he is not the worst of the worst, and that means this is not a death-penalty case.
"You do not value Malinda Gibbons by a verdict of death," she said. "I beg you to show mercy, show compassion and reach a verdict of life without parole."
She said his sentence began at 18 and will finish when he dies in prison alone.
The jury is scheduled to come back Thursday morning to receive instructions and start deliberations.