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'No-Body' Trial Tests Acumen of Prosecutor

March 09, 1987|LOIS TIMNICK | Times Staff Writer

- Thomas Devins of Encino, now of South San Francisco, was convicted of slaying a West Los Angeles woman in 1968 and spreading her hacked-up remains over the Swiss Alps, after bilking her out of $1 million. District attorney's investigator Bill Burnett and prosecutor Stephen Trott (now the No. 3 man in the U.S. Justice Department) pursued Devins' trail through Europe to gather evidence. A jawbone determined to be that of the victim, Norma Carty Wilson, was found by a hiker six years after her disappearance. Devins' conviction was later overturned on grounds that California had no jurisdiction over a crime committed in Switzerland.

Prosecuting each of these cases was made easier by Leavy's landmark verdict, which had been upheld by a California appeals court in 1960. There had been earlier murder convictions in cases where the victim's body had not been found, but in each, either the killer had confessed to someone or acknowledged that the victim was dead, or there was corroboration by an eyewitness or the discovery of some part of the victim.

But nothing of Evelyn Scott, 63 years old at the time of her disappearance, was ever found, other than her eyeglasses and dentures buried under leaves and ashes on property adjacent to her Bel-Air mansion.

Federal Appeals Judge Art Alarcon, who as a young prosecutor assisted Leavy on the Scott case, recalled last week that "We called a large number of witnesses to 'recreate' Mrs. Scott, to bring to the jury's mind a living, breathing, happy woman with regular habits, like having her hair done every Tuesday, calling an invalid friend each morning, and regularly visiting her bank, her dentist and her optician. . . . That was the key thing."

Only after convincing jurors that she was dead and that her death could only have been of unnatural causes did the prosecutors turn the jury's attention to her husband's apparent motives and incriminating actions, such as forging her name, raiding her safety deposit box, and telling conflicting stories to concerned friends who asked her whereabouts.

While the burden of proof is on the prosecution to persuade jurors "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the crime occurred and that the defendant committed it, a carefully presented case "can shift the psychological burden to the defense, " said Dino Fulgoni, who heads the district attorney's special crimes division. "The jury may say it's up to him (the defendant) to explain" his apparent motives and actions.

In the Billionaire Boys Club case, for example, defendant Hunt bragged to friends that he had "knocked off" Levin and attempted to cash a check for $1.5 million that the victim had made out to one of Hunt's companies, testimony showed. And Hunt's handwritten list, "At Levin's TO DO"--including such suspicious-sounding notations as "tape mouth," "handcuff," and "put gloves on"--was found in Levin's home.

But defense attorney Arthur Barens, who calls his client "brilliant, a genius," said Hunt "must testify" and will explain.

Until recently, some states--most notably New York, until five years ago--had laws requiring "direct" proof that the alleged victim was dead, laws prompted by fears that the victim might turn up alive, but too late.

For example, in the 19th Century one unfortunate John Miles had been hanged for the murder of his friend William Ridley, whose body was discovered only after the execution. Ridley had not been murdered after all but had fallen into a deep privy while drunk--where no one had thought to look.

And in England, there was the case of the uncle hanged for the murder of his missing niece--a runaway who later returned to claim her inheritance, and the case of a kidnap victim sold into slavery in Turkey who found on his return that three people had been hanged for his murder.

In modern legal history, only two no-body convictions solely on circumstantial evidence are recorded before Scott, both in the early 1950s. One, in England, involved a Polish farmer who killed his partner in a money dispute and told conflicting stories to explain his disappearance. The other, in New Zealand, involved a bride who never returned from her honeymoon and whose new husband claimed she had been drowned when the ship on which they were sailing, Empress of India, was torpedoed. The bridegroom's case was not helped when it turned out no such ship existed; he was found guilty of her murder.

Although no-body murder prosecutions are tough, most of the handful here since Scott have been successful, with only one acquittal in the memory of oldtimers in the district attorney's office.

That may be, says prosecutor Kay, because "we don't prosecute no-body cases at the drop of a hat. We know how hard they are. We have to be convinced even more than the jury before we'll go ahead."

None of the "victims" has subsequently surfaced alive, and in fact, in most cases either the body was later found or the killer confessed.

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