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Man Convicted of Killing Wife Gets Life Term : Courts: Robert Peernock is bound and gagged after shouting for a new trial. He was found guilty of staging a fatal car crash. He also threatened jurors from jail.

October 24, 1991|JULIO MORAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Tarzana man convicted of murdering his wife and of soliciting a fellow jail inmate to kill his daughter was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole as he sat bound and gagged after shouting out his innocence in the courtroom.

Immediately after being brought into the courtroom at San Fernando Superior Court, Robert J. Peernock, 54--who had disrupted his murder trial with outbursts that prompted his removal from court three times--began shouting that he was innocent of the charges and wanted a new trial.

"I am innocent. I was not given a fair trial," Peernock shouted.

After Peernock ignored repeated requests by Judge Howard J. Schwab to be quiet, Schwab ordered sheriff's deputies to handcuff and gag him.

Two deputies forcibly removed Peernock from the courtroom and pushed him into the courtroom holding cell. When he returned a few minutes later, Peernock's hands were handcuffed behind his back and cloth tape covered his mouth.

About 10 minutes into the proceedings, Peernock, his face turning red, began slumping in his chair until he was nearly under the table. Schwab ordered deputies to attend to Peernock, who was taken back into the holding cell briefly.

When he was brought back, Peernock remained sitting up for the rest of the proceedings, although he appeared to be fidgeting with the handcuffs and attempting to remove the tape with his mouth.

At the end of the hearing, Peernock refused to stand and deputies dragged him on his knees back into the holding cell.

In handing down the sentence, Schwab called Peernock "one of the most dangerous men I have ever dealt with in my career."

Earlier this month, a prosecutor said Peernock was attempting to contact the jurors who convicted him to harass or harm them.

A court-ordered search of his jail cell turned up a list of names and addresses of jurors, prompting Supervising Judge David M. Schacter to suggest that the situation, although not illegal, could have "put the entire jury system at risk" because of the potential harm Peernock could have caused the jurors.

In his sentence recommendations, Schwab said that Peernock should be kept imprisoned in a high-security area with "as little contact with humanity as possible," and that no governor should ever pardon Peernock.

"It is my steadfast recommendation that Mr. Peernock never be allowed back into society," Schwab said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig R. Richman, who prosecuted the case, apologized for not seeking the death penalty to the friends and family of Peernock's deceased wife, Claire, who were sitting in the courtroom, many of them with tears streaming down their faces.

Prosecutors agreed with Peernock's attorney to seek life in prison without parole rather than the death penalty so that the case could quickly move to trial.

"If there is an afterlife, if there is a heaven and a hell, I hope that Claire has the opportunity to look down and see Mr. Peernock fry in hell," Richman said.

Although Peernock tried to fire his attorney, Donald J. Green, during the trial, Green pleaded unsuccessfully for a more lenient sentence, saying that Peernock's actions in court were those of a "desperate man."

"He professes to me his innocence," Green said. "I still believe in my client."

Peernock was scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 18. But Schwab moved up sentencing to Wednesday because he said he did not want Peernock creating any more "mischief."

Peernock had originally been scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 3, however sentencing was delayed until an Orange County judge could rule on a motion filed by Peernock arguing that Schwab should be removed from the case because he is prejudiced.

Peernock accused Schwab of conspiring with others--including Peernock's daughter, his deceased wife's lawyer, police investigators and prosecutors--to convict him so that they could gain access to his finances.

Orange County Superior Court Judge James L. Smith ruled this week that Schwab was not prejudiced, clearing the way for Wednesday's sentencing.

After sentencing, Schwab said that the Peernock case revealed that two changes should be made in state law.

One would make it a felony for anyone to contact criminal trial jurors outside the courthouse without court permission after the case has ended. The second would allow a judge to proceed with a case while a motion to remove him is being reviewed so that proceedings are not unnecessarily delayed.

A spokesman for state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita) said that Davis is considering sponsoring such legislation.

Prosecutors said Peernock, a former pyrotechnical engineer for a movie studio, killed his estranged wife, Claire, 45, and attempted to kill his daughter to gain control of community property and life insurance benefits totaling $1.5 million.

Peernock and his wife were within weeks of divorcing when she and their then 18-year-old daughter, Natasha Peernock Sims, were found in a crashed car on July 22, 1987, according to court records. Police said the two women had been doused with gasoline and the car rigged to explode when it crashed into a utility pole in a remote area in Sun Valley.

But the car failed to explode, and passersby found Sims unconscious. During the trial, a medical examiner testified that Peernock's wife died prior to the car crash from head wounds.

The same jury that convicted Peernock of murdering his wife also convicted him of trying to hire a fellow inmate in County Jail to kill his daughter and her attorney.

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