A Twentynine Palms man faces life in prison without the chance of parole following his conviction this week in a South Bay murder-for-hire case that has spanned 10 years and spawned five murder trials.
A jury on Monday found Michael Seawright, 39, guilty of murder and conspiracy for orchestrating the killing of his mother-in-law in Hawthorne so he could take over the family business.
The jury in Pomona, where the case was moved from Torrance for scheduling reasons, deliberated about 12 hours before concluding that Seawright masterminded the plot to kill Catherine Stroup, 46, on the morning of April 5, 1983.
Seawright was the last of four people to stand trial in the complicated case, which a judge likened to a TV murder mystery for its elements of greed, jilted lovers and a botched prosecution.
"I'm just so glad it's done with," said James Stroup Sr., Catherine Stroup's husband, who, in one of many twists in the case, stood trial for the murder in 1984 but was acquitted in a prosecution the district attorney now regrets.
"There is a God," added Stroup, who cried after learning of the verdict.
But the strain of waiting 10 years for the case to end has divided his family--his daughter is still married to Seawright--and has taken a personal toll, he said. His second wife served him this week with divorce papers.
This was Seawright's second trial. The first one ended last summer when the jury could not reach a verdict.
The hit men in the plot, brothers Peter and Paul Leach, have been convicted and are serving lengthy prison terms, although an appellate court overturned Peter Leach's sentence of life without possibility of parole. The district attorney's office has not decided whether to retry Peter Leach on the penalty issue or simply allow the Superior Court to impose the standard first-degree murder sentence of 25 years to life with the opportunity for parole.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Duarte, who has been handling the case since 1988, relied mostly on circumstantial evidence to win Seawright's conviction. The prosecuting attorney portrayed Seawright as a manipulative schemer with a hypnotic quality that he used to persuade the Leach brothers, his friends, to participate in the plot.
Seawright hired the Leaches to kill James and Catherine Stroup so he could take over the desert water delivery business that James Stroup bankrolled and Seawright managed, the prosecution argued. Seawright had been arguing with Catherine Stroup, who suspected he was skimming profits from the struggling business.
Seawright promised the Leaches a stake in the water business, some insurance money and $2,000 that he said was stashed in the Stroups' Hawthorne apartment, Duarte said. When the Leach brothers arrived at the apartment, they found Catherine home alone and went forward with her killing. Paul Leach held her while Peter Leach shot her four times, twice in the head, with a .22-caliber Luger.
The Leach brothers then fled the apartment and were not arrested until several months after James Stroup's trial in 1984, when authorities found the murder weapon and traced it to them.
Seawright was also detained, then released when prosecutors decided they did not have enough evidence to try him. But after the Leaches' convictions, he was arrested in 1991 and charged with the murder.
Although the Leach brothers over the years have admitted lying about their role and that of Seawright's in the crime, Duarte counted on their testimony, which jurors said was corroborated by other witnesses, including former lovers of both Seawright and the Leaches.
But jurors said the most damning evidence may have come from Seawright himself.
"Michael's testimony was probably the most derogatory," said jury foreman Bill Horton, 49, a school administrator from La Verne. "We felt he lied."
"It's wonderful," Duarte said of the conviction. "Catherine has been waiting 10 years for this. She can finally rest in peace."
Robert Alden Welbourn, Seawright's attorney, said he probably will appeal the conviction. He said the appeal would be based on Pomona Superior Court Judge Clarence A. Stromwall's refusal to allow testimony that Welbourn considered crucial to Seawright's defense.
That testimony concerns remarks that James Stroup allegedly made to friends and family members after his acquittal. He allegedly said he could now tell the grand jury, "I killed the bitch and there's nothing they could do about it."
Stroup has said in an interview that he actually remarked in relief, "Wouldn't it be a bitch if I went in there and said I killed her and they couldn't do anything about it?"
"I thought that was a very important statement," Welbourn said. "I thought that was a watershed."
Welbourn also said the judge made improper remarks about the evidence, at one point asking a witness if Seawright's grin was "like the cat that swallowed the canary?"
"I don't know if it would have made a difference, but it certainly was prejudicial to my client," Welbourn said.
Seawright is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 9.