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Man Guilty of Slaying--24 Years After Crime

December 19, 1986|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

SALINAS, Calif. — After three days of jury deliberation--and 24 years after the crime--Booker T. Hillery was convicted Thursday for the second time of murdering a 15-year-old girl in rural Hanford with the victim's sewing scissors..

Hillery, 55, was first convicted in 1962, but last Jan. 14, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict on the grounds that Hillery, a black farmhand at the time of the murder, had been unconstitutionally discriminated against because blacks were purposely excluded from the 19-member Kings County Grand Jury that indicted him. The court ordered that Hillery be freed or given a new trial.

The victim of the crime, high school sophomore Marlene Miller, was white.

Shows No Emotion

Hillery listened without visible emotion as the Monterey County Superior Court clerk read the verdict. Spectators in the courtroom of Judge John M. Phillips were quiet.

Hillery was ordered returned to court Jan. 15 for sentencing. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. He has remained behind bars since the Supreme Court action.

Kings County Dist. Atty. Robert Maline, who prosecuted the case, said after the verdict that despite the long period between trials, the focus of the prosecution had not changed.

"All kinds of physical evidence linked him to the crime," Maline said. "That was the cornerstone of the case in 1962, and the cornerstone of the case today."

Hillery's attorney, Clifford Tedmon said he will appeal the verdict.

Stabbed With Scissors

Marlene Miller was home alone on the night of the murder, making a dress to wear to a party, when she was stabbed to death in the neck with sewing scissors inscribed "Marlene M." Her body was found in an irrigation ditch not far from her home (which is no longer there), about five miles outside town.

The clothes had been ripped from her body and the coroner concluded she had been the victim of an attempted rape.

Hillery, employed at a ranch about a half-mile from the Miller home, was on parole after serving time for rape. He was arrested shortly after the murder.

His original conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. His car had been spotted near the Miller house, and tire marks, a boot print and a bloody glove found near the scene were traced to Hillery.

"The basic thrust of the case did not change over the years," Maline said. "It continued to hinge on the car, the prints and the gloves."

But there were dramatic moments in the retrial, including surprise witnesses who had not testified at the original trial and new evidence that resulted from scientific techniques not available in 1962.

One of the new witnesses, Lowell Reightley, a Kings County sheriff's deputy at the time of the murder, said he heard Hillery admit a killing that he believed to have been that of the Hanford girl. Reightley told the jury that he was working in the Kings County Jail when Hillery was arrested.

While checking the cells during a rainy night, Reightley testified, one of the prisoners asked why the thunder was so loud.

Reightley said he replied: "God must be angry, because someone has killed one of his children."

Hillery, who was hunched in his cell, then said, according to Reightley: "I didn't mean to kill that girl. I didn't mean to."

Challenges Reliability

But Tedmon challenged the reliability of the witness and a former cell mate of Hillery's who also implicated him in the killing.

One remarkable aspect of the case is that the Kings County Sheriff's Department held onto more than 100 pieces of evidence from the Hillery case, including photographs of the crime scene, fiber and paint samples and Hillery's car.

Maline offered during the trial new, more modern technical analysis of old evidence and showed that flecks of paint from the roof liner of Hillery's car were found in his sock, the Miller home, and the girl's shoe.

Tedmon disputed the findings and contended that the bags containing paint samples could have been contaminated over the years.

Jury Foreman Richard Heiland emphasized the circumstantial nature of much of the evidence in talking to reporters after the verdict.

"It was entirely a circumstantial evidence case. . . .," Heiland said. "Without an eyewitness we felt we really had to examine all the evidence."

For both the defense and prosecuting attorneys, trying a case so many years after the original crime was an unprecedented task. About 115 people who originally were involved in the case--witnesses, law enforcement officers, family members and criminalists--had to be tracked down throughout the country. Twenty-one had died; others were senile.

Two women were hired by Kings County to read transcripts of testimony from the first trial by witnesses who had died. This was a disadvantage to the prosecution, Maline said, because "you lose a lot of the vividness, and the case is a lot drier for the jury."

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