An ex-convict and admitted heroin user Friday was acquitted by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury on charges that he ordered an accomplice to shoot Los Feliz restaurateur Alberto F. Sarno during a robbery attempt two years ago.
Sarno's body, with a bullet hole in the chest, was found slumped against the front door of his home in the early morning hours of Oct. 20, 1987, by his wife, Silvana. He was the owner of the Caffee Dell'Opera.
"Hallelujah!" the defendant, Ralph Mora, 35, yelled as the court clerk read the not guilty verdicts on charges of first-degree murder and attempted robbery.
"Thank God for the jury system," Mora said as he exchanged hugs with his two lawyers while many members of his family, including his mother, wept.
Despite the acquittal, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris, who prosecuted the case, immediately ordered special police protection for the key prosecution witness against Mora.
During the pretrial proceedings, the witness' home was burned to the ground. Officials determined the fire to be arson although no one was ever charged. Later, the witness, Krysteen Ann Ackerman, testified that she had received threatening telephone calls from Mora after he was arrested and jailed a week after Sarno's slaying.
Several jurors said Friday they felt that Norris had not proven the case against Mora beyond a reasonable doubt.
As the jurors left the courtroom, defense lawyers H. Elizabeth Harris and Charles Earl Lloyd, both of Los Angeles, jubilantly invited them to join them and the Mora family for lunch at a downtown restaurant, and many said they would.
Had Mora been convicted, he could have faced the death penalty. This was his second trial. The first ended in a mistrial exactly a year ago Friday with a jury deadlocked 8-4 in favor of conviction, thus forcing a second trial.
Mora testified in both trials, proclaiming his innocence, saying that he was at a friend's house in El Sereno on the night of the murder.
And the jury believed him, juror Alvin Williams said. "There just wasn't enough (evidence) to put him there (at the murder scene)," he said.
"We examined the evidence that we had presented to us, and we determined that there was reasonable doubt as far as the guilt of the accused," foreman Robin R. Zylstra added.
"The right decision came out. That's all there was," said Los Angeles attorney Richard Leonard, who had been Harris' co-counsel during Mora's first trial.
The jury reached the verdicts after 2 1/2 days of deliberations.
Mora was arrested and charged after Ackerman told police that Mora had discussed plans to rob Sarno with her.
Norris conceded during the trial that Mora did not actually pull the trigger and that an accomplice had done the shooting at Mora's behest.
Norris told jurors that Sarno, 59, would be alive had it not been for Mora.
The actual triggerman, according to Norris, was a Mora acquaintance who had been paroled shortly before Sarno's murder. The man was never charged, however, for a lack of sufficient evidence.
Norris said Friday that he had sought unsuccessfully to persuade Mora to turn state's evidence against the alleged triggerman, who had served in the same prison with Mora.
Mora was also paroled shortly before Sarno's murder after having served seven years at Chino State Prison for three armed robbery convictions.
$224 in Sarno's Pocket
Although police found $224 in Sarno's pocket, Norris contended that Sarno was killed during the course of an attempted robbery in which each man thought the other had taken Sarno's money.
Defense lawyer Harris said of her client, "He was the sort of fellow that jurors would traditionally look to convict, and that was what the prosecution had going for it most of all. . . . But this was one he didn't do."
According to Ackerman's testimony, the events that led to Sarno's murder began in the summer of 1987 when she was jailed for numerous unpaid traffic tickets.
Unable to post bail, Ackerman, an admitted drug user, said she borrowed $100 from Mora, the brother of her boyfriend, Pasqual Mora.
After Ackerman was released, Ralph Mora began badgering her for reimbursement, she said. It was then that Ralph Mora suggested robbing Sarno's popular restaurant, where Ackerman had worked as a waitress, she testified.
When she told him that many police officers frequented the restaurant, Mora suggested robbing Sarno at home instead when he returned with the night's receipts, Ackerman said.
She added that she had shown Mora where Sarno lived.
But juror Williams said the jury found Ackerman to be "not too convincing." And he characterized the testimony of Pasqual Mora, who also testified against the defendant, similarly. "They ran neck and neck," Williams said.
Catherine Mora, the defendant's mother, said of her oldest son, now a free man: "I hope this is a bigger lesson than the last one he had."