SANTA ANA — A part-time college professor was so consumed with hatred for his unfaithful wife that he nearly pulled off the "perfect crime" by slipping her a fatal dose of cyanide, a prosecutor charged Tuesday.
"This crime took pure hatred to commit, and the evidence will show that this defendant had plenty of it to go around," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans on the first day of Richard K. Overton's murder trial.
During lengthy, but dramatic, opening statements, the prosecutor depicted the 64-year-old Dana Point man as a "cunning and sly" individual who tortured his wife for years with a mysterious poison before finally killing her with a lethal dose of cyanide.
The slow, chronic poisoning of Janet L. Overton was eerily similar to the poisoning of a former Overton wife, Dorothy Boyer, whose testimony is expected to be a key element in the prosecution's case, Evans said.
"He learned to poison wives to satisfy his hostilities," Evans told the jury.
Overton, a mathematician and computer whiz who holds a doctorate in psychology and lectured at Cal State Long Beach and USC, has pleaded not guilty to the Jan. 24, 1988, death of his 46-year-old wife.
His attorney, Robert D. Chatterton, declined to give an opening statement Tuesday, instead electing to address the jurors after the prosecution has rested its case.
The death of Janet Overton, a prominent South County educator, and the subsequent arrest of her husband has drawn national interest from various media. It was a death that for nearly eight months stumped coroner's examiners until Boyer called investigators and reported that her former husband had tried to poison her years earlier.
In fact, it wasn't until Boyer called investigators with her story that homicide detectives focused on Overton as a murder suspect.
"It is a twisted tale," Evans warned the jury.
According to Evans, evidence in the case dates back to Overton's divorce from Boyer. It was shortly after their divorce, he said, that Overton developed an interest in poisoning people who angered him.
In the early 1970s, Evans said Overton secretly entered his ex-wife's home and poisoned her milk, coffee and shampoo because he was upset that she got "his dream house" in the divorce. Overton apparently confessed to putting Drano in Boyer's milk and prescription drugs in her coffee after being confronted by a sheriff's investigator about the incident, Evans said.
Overton was not prosecuted for Boyer's poisoning and agreed to seek counseling, Evans said.
But Overton would later use his poisoning talents against Janet Overton when their marriage soured, the prosecutor alleged.
Referring to Janet and Richard's marriage, he said: "This (was) the marriage from hell."
The Overton's marriage started to crumble about a year after their 1969 union when Overton began suspecting that his wife was having love affairs behind his back, Evans said.
Overton suspected his wife of having up to 17 affairs, Evans said.
Overton's suspicions were well documented in meticulous diaries he kept, Evans said. The hundreds of computer and handwritten diary entries are expected to be a crucial part of the prosecution's case.
They will be used to show that Overton hated his wife and to point out apparent "lies" which he told investigators during a three-hour interview concerning his wife's death, Evans said.
For example, Evans told the jury, Overton told investigators that he had a normal loving relationship with wife. But in a diary, which Evans called "the loathing diary," Overton appears obsessed with his wife's extramarital affairs.
In the diaries, Overton recorded Janet Overton's sexual activities, including the whereabouts of her "seduction gear" of condoms, vibrators and other sexual aids. Overton's diaries were so detailed, Evans added, that he even documented "his own bowel movements."
The diaries and other evidence are also expected to show that, contrary to his comments to investigators, Overton not only was familiar with cyanide, but was "partners with a man in a mining company" that used the chemical in gold extraction.
Because of the diaries, Evans said, the jury is going to "get a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience to go inside the mind of a murderer," Evans said.
Although defense attorney Chatterton has remained tight-lipped about his strategy, pretrial motions he has filed indicate he plans to attack Boyer's credibility, suggesting that after she made the allegations against her former husband, she attempted to sue him for more than $100,000 in unpaid spousal and child support.
Chatterton is also expected to dispute the findings of several of the prosecution's expert witnesses about the actual role of cyanide in Janet Overton's death. Much of the testimony and evidence in the projected two-month-long trial is expected to revolve around the autopsy findings and the alleged chronic poisoning symptoms of both Janet Overton and Boyer.