Ninth Circuit Overturns Conviction in Savage Orange County Murder

Categories: Court, Crime-iny

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Smith
In a rare move, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has sided with a Los Angeles-based federal judge and against the California Supreme Court to rule that a wealthy Orange County defendant convicted of savagely murdering his wife did not receive a fair trial in 2007.

U.S. District Court Judge Otis D. Wright II declared last year that a veteran OC prosecutor and judge violated Marvin Vernis Smith's constitutional due-process rights, and a three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit this week agreed.

The federal appellate panel ordered Smith, 75, a Cypress resident who owned a Los Angeles liquor store, released from Lancaster State Prison or re-charged within 90 days.

Someone murdered Smith's wife, Minnie--a beloved, sweet woman--in the couple's bedroom in December 2005. As a result, Smith--a trash-talking serial philanderer who had a history of violence against his church-loving spouse--gained full control of the couple's $5 million fortune. The defendant claimed he came home to discover his wife's corpse.

But a Cypress police detective and Murray poked numerous glaring holes in Smith's story. For example, Smith implied the killer must have broken into a closet floor safe and stolen jewelry worth more than $244,000. Police eventually found the missing jewelry in the trunk of one of Smith's secondary vehicles, which he kept in LA.

Law enforcement also uncovered this eyebrow-raising fact: The missing jewelry found in Smith's vehicle was wrapped with the same spool of Massachusetts-produced duct tape the killer used to tied the victim's ankles together.

The crux of the appellate controversy was a move by prosecutor Michael F. Murray, whose case focused on the defendant as the actual killer but who, after the close of the evidence portion of the trial, asked Superior Court Judge Daniel Barrett McNerney to give jurors an instruction they could also convict Smith under an aiding-and-abetting theory.

Jennifer Keller and Kay Rackauckas, Smith's high-priced defense lawyers who argued someone other than their client must have killed the woman, vehemently opposed the instruction as unfair, but McNerney granted Murray's request.

"The prosecution's conduct affirmatively led Smith to believe it would not rely on an aiding-and-abetting liability theory," wrote the Ninth Circuit panel of judges Sidney R. Thomas, Andrew D. Hurwitz and Ralph R. Beistline. "Thus, the aiding-and-abetting jury instruction violated Smith's fundamental right to receive notice of the nature of the charges against him and have a meaningful opportunity to prepare a defense. Given the closely balanced evidence, we cannot say that the trial court's error was harmless."

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OC Weekly photo
Murray
I covered every moment of the battle in court, as well as interviewed jurors after the trial, and I can't agree with the federal judges that Keller's defense evidence was on par with Murray's case.

But the Ninth Circuit--relying on transcripts--applauded Wright's equally remote conclusion of "grave doubts about the validity of the jury's verdict."

The use of the word "grave" is especially absurd.

Since Murray, a ranking member of the DA's elite homicide unit, won a conviction, the case has been on a wild legal roller coaster. State appellate-court justices originally ruled Smith's trial wasn't fair on the aiding-and-abetting issue. The state Supreme Court then vacated that opinion. A second state appellate ruling asserted that Smith suffered no prejudicial error and his defense team did, in fact, have adequate notice of the aiding-and-abetting theory. Next came Wright's contradictory ruling and, lastly, the Ninth Circuit's stance.

DA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder said this morning that prosecutors will be asking California Attorney General Kamala Harris to appeal the Ninth Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the DA's office isn't successful going that route, they don't plan to quit.

"We believe that the defendant is factually guilty and that an innocent woman was viciously murdered," said Schroeder. "We intend to try the case again and make sure that justice is done for Minnie."

Go HERE to read my exclusive coverage of the colorful trial.

Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

Email: rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @RScottMoxley.


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9 comments
npssecure
npssecure

Maybe it is because I love Baseball and law that I make this comparison.  You don't need a home run to win. The OC DA ( I am a Dodger Fan) goes for the fences.

If you think he did it great, unless  your evidence is aid and abetting in a murder, solicitation or conspiracy then the defendant,based on his age, is looking at life. You cant have both.

The kidnapping, rape and murder conviction from Orange 1990 just lost its kidnapping charge. Rape and murder was enough for the death penalty, they had to swing for the fences, because he dragged her around the parking lot they charged her with kidnapping.

Guest
Guest

The ninth "circus" is at it again.  Someone with more legal knowledge than I, isn't it the most overturned circuit court in the nation?

This is why I'm in contempt of court.

949girl
949girl topcommenter

What was the prosecutor's argument, that Smith, himself killed his wife?  Or that he hired someone?  I can see why the aiding and abetting instruction was overturned depending on what the DAs case against him was.  If the DA had a strong case against him and that instruction wasn't applicable then they shouldn't have a problem retrying the case.  But it's not really fair to throw in instructions that aren't relevant.  This article says that "someone murdered Smith's wife" and then the DA is asking the judge to add the instruction because the " case focused on the defendant as the actual killer but who, after the close of the evidence portion of the trial, asked Superior Court Judge Daniel Barrett McNerney to give jurors an instruction they could also convict Smith under an aiding-and-abetting theory".  

So it sounds to me from reading this one article that the prosecutor feels Smith is responsible for the murder but isn't sure if he, himself, did it or if he hired or knew who did it.  I agree with the conviction getting overturned on the instruction being added but then again I don't know the details but am confused by reading the article.  None the less, it sounds like Smith had something to do with it. 

1000Steps
1000Steps

And the worst court in the US keeps its shitty record intact.

rscottmoxley
rscottmoxley topcommenter

@949girl  It's not an easy situation to decipher and, obvious, there are a variety of opinions in the legal community about whether the prosecutor and judge robbed Smith of a fair trial. But I'm pretty sure about three things in all of this: Smith had the luxury of an expensive, crafty, veteran defense team and that's still paying off in the appellate process; the homicide prosecutor in this case, Mike Murray, firmly believes he has ample solid evidence Smith murdered his wife; and, based on what I know about Murray's tenacity and ethics, he's not going to quit until he gets justice for the victim and her survivors.

rscottmoxley
rscottmoxley topcommenter

@949girl  It's not an easy situation to decipher and, obvious, there are a variety of opinions in the legal community about whether the prosecutor and judge robbed Smith of a fair trial. But I'm pretty sure about three things in all of this: Smith had the luxury of an expensive, crafty, veteran defense team and that's still paying off in the appellate process; the homicide prosecutor in this case, Mike Murray, firmly believes he has ample solid evidence Smith murdered his wife; and, based on what I know about Murray's tenacity and ethics, he's not going to quit until he gets justice for the victim and her survivors.

rscottmoxley
rscottmoxley topcommenter

@949girl  It's not an easy situation to decipher and, obvious, there are a variety of opinions in the legal community about whether the prosecutor and judge robbed Smith of a fair trial. But I'm pretty sure about three things in all of this: Smith had the luxury of an expensive, crafty, veteran defense team and that's still paying off in the appellate process; the homicide prosecutor in this case, Mike Murray, firmly believes he has ample solid evidence Smith murdered his wife; and, based on what I know about Murray's tenacity and ethics, he's not going to quit until he gets justice for the victim and her survivors.

rscottmoxley
rscottmoxley topcommenter

@949girl It's not an easy situation to decipher and, obvious, there are a variety of opinions in the legal community about whether the prosecutor and judge robbed Smith of a fair trial. But I'm pretty sure about three things in all of this: Smith had the luxury of an expensive, crafty, veteran defense team and that's still paying off in the appellate process; the homicide prosecutor in this case, Mike Murray, believes he has ample, solid evidence Smith murdered his wife; and, based on what I know about Murray's tenacity and ethics, he's not going to quit until he gets justice for the victim and her survivors.

949girl
949girl topcommenter

@rscottmoxley @949girl From reading this, it sounds like the prosecutor started the case saying Smith was the actual killer and then somewhere during the trial introduced the idea that he was responsible for the murder, even if he didn't physically commit it and then added as many jury instructions as possible.  The defense attorneys must have had a very good argument for this to happen and spun it well for him to do this.  Only the appropriate ones should apply in my opinion. 

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