One day after his stunning acquittal on escape charges, convicted murderer Ivan Von Staich said Saturday that he expects the impact of his case to be widely felt and result in improved conditions for inmates.
Von Staich, 32, convicted in 1983 of killing a Santa Ana man and bludgeoning his wife, said that what he called random beatings and other mistreatment of prisoners in local detention facilities should diminish as a result of the jury's decision.
Von Staich, who acted as his own lawyer during the trial that ended Friday in Orange County Superior Court, could have had 6 years added to his 37-year-to-life sentence if he had been convicted. He used an obscure legal defense that allows for acquittal if a prison escapee can prove that his life was in danger.
After the verdict, a jail spokesman called the acquittal "absolutely astounding." Jail officials could not be reached for comment Saturday.
"Yes, I believe that the results of this case will help other inmates from being attacked and beaten by guards," Von Staich said. "At least now they'll think twice about their actions."
Von Staich, who broke out of the main men's jail in Santa Ana on Jan. 26, 1986, with inmate Robert J. Clark, 23, of Palm Springs, said he escaped from the facility because he was regularly beaten by jail guards from the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
Von Staich employed a rare legal strategy called the "defense of necessity," claiming that he had no choice but to flee the brutality of jail conditions.
In an interview in jail, Von Staich said he is pleased with the outcome of the trial but cannot wait for his transfer back to a state prison.
"Once I am transferred to a state prison, I don't expect to run into this kind of behavior. The guards respect you and they do their jobs by the rules. They know the policies and the regulations. Essentially, everyone knows where they stand," Von Staich said.
In the 24 hours since the acquittal, Von Staich said, guards in the Orange County facility have shown mixed reactions.
"You can tell that they have a lot of resentment. They were saying things to me like the jury was a panel full of idiots and that the district attorney did a (poor) job. They were making a lot stupid comments like that," he said.
Von Staich said many of the younger guards at the jail want to prove themselves to their peers and establish their authority over inmates. He said beatings are one tactic of new guards.
"We have had inmates killed in this jail. Usually it's the younger guards, but not always. The worst shift is the night shift. They don't seem to be as busy as the day or swing shift guards. Most of the beatings happen between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. They'll come drag you out of your tank, take you to a back room and beat the (expletive) out of you," Von Staich said.
"Now I think that the guards realize that they are not dealing with just another member of the inmate population. They know that I won't put up with their abuse," he said.
Von Staich said he spent months preparing his defense, hiring and firing three attorneys and making use of the jail's limited law library. Von Staich said he had little formal education but asked to represent himself to show the jury that he "was not a monster but a human being."
"When people take a look at my size, my beard and my long hair they associate me with Charles Manson. I'm not like that at all. I am not a violent person. I wanted to make sure that the jury saw this," Von Staich said.
In the trial before Superior Court Judge Linda Hodge McLaughlin, jurors were told that Von Staich is a convicted felon but not that he is a convicted murderer.
"They wouldn't have considered this case or this defense for a minute had they known about my conviction," Von Staich said.
Von Staich was convicted in 1985 of the attempted murder of his girlfriend, Cynthia Topper, and the murder of her husband, Richard. According to court records, Von Staich kicked in the door of the Toppers' Santa Ana home and beat Robert Topper with a claw hammer and then shot him three times. He then beat Cynthia Topper with the hammer, causing brain damage.
Although the jury agreed with Von Staich that he had suffered beatings, they did not believe all of his testimony.
For instance, the jurors disregarded Von Staich's assertion that a deputy sheriff had been bribed to help with the escape. Von Staich said the deputy, for a fee of $10,000, agreed to help him and Clark escape.
Deputy Dist. Atty. William Overtoom argued that Von Staich's defense was flawed.
While conceding that the 200-pound-plus man had been severely beaten in jail, Overtoom said Von Staich weakened his own special defense by failing to report the beatings. Von Staich also showed no intention to give himself up after he had escaped. In fact, Von Staich was a fugitive for about 4 weeks before being arrested on loitering charges in Massachusetts, the prosecutor argued.
Overtoom also argued that Von Staich did not prove the defense applied to him because he did not try to get help for any life-threatening situation while suffering the beatings. Von Staich also failed to immediately report to officials once he was safely out of the jail.