Media coverage of the murder case against Mark Scott Thornton, accused of killing Westlake nurse Kellie O'Sullivan, has often been one-sided, portraying the defendant negatively and the victim sympathetically, a defense expert witness said Monday.
Edward J. Bronson, a political-science professor at Cal State Chico, made the statement during a hearing in which defense attorneys are asking to have the trial moved outside Ventura County because of pretrial publicity.
Monday's testimony came as Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath also announced he would not unseal court documents, including the transcript of the grand-jury proceedings that led to the indictment of Thornton on charges of kidnaping and murder. Prosecutors have asked that the documents be kept secret to limit pretrial publicity and keep the trial in Ventura County.
McGrath's decision came three months after he said he was inclined to unseal the transcript and other court documents at the time of a change of venue hearing. The request to unseal the documents was made by The Times, which was joined by Ventura County Newspapers. The papers later asked the 2nd District Court of Appeal to intercede in the case, but the appellate court last week refused to intervene.
McGrath did not specifically provide a basis for his ruling Monday, other than to say his conclusion was reached after having read the evidence.
Attorney Glen A. Smith, representing The Times, said the newspaper has not decided if it will appeal the judge's ruling. But he added that Ventura County court officials have not shown a good cause for sealing the documents in question, as is required under state law.
"There hasn't been any showing so far that any of the materials that have been sealed would affect his right to a fair trial one way or another, and that has been the whole point to our motion," he said.
Police say Thornton, 19, kidnaped and fatally shot O'Sullivan, 34, mother of a young son. The grand jury indictment against him includes a special circumstance that could send Thornton to the gas chamber, if convicted.
In the change-of-venue hearing, Bronson discussed the results of a poll he designed that showed that two-thirds of the county's registered voters believe Thornton is guilty of killing O'Sullivan.
During nearly three hours of testimony, Bronson did not talk about the ultimate conclusion of his survey: that Thornton cannot get a fair trial in Ventura County.
He is expected to testify about that result today, when direct examination continues, said Deputy Public Defender Howard J. Asher, Thornton's lawyer.
Bronson, who has published articles on pretrial publicity, said he reviewed 179 stories on the case from local newspapers, as well as listened to tapes of television and radio broadcasts on it.
The professor said he used a system called "hierarchy of prejudice," which considers whether news stories are inflammatory or prejudicial, or contain information that is either inaccurate or inadmissible.
He said the public seemed shocked by the O'Sullivan murder because she was "well-liked, middle class, white and not a drug dealer."
She was kidnaped after leaving a friend's office in Westlake while running errands, police said. Bronson said the apparent circumstances surrounding her disappearance are what made the case big news.
The crux of Bronson's testimony is what he said were the contrasting treatments afforded the victim and the defendant in the case.
The media have reported Thornton's criminal record and even some alleged crimes for which he was never charged, Bronson said. In 25 different stories, he said, news accounts inaccurately reported O'Sullivan was shot three times in the back. Actually, he said, she was shot twice in the back and once in the front.
"I think there is a lot of significance to being shot in the back," said Bronson. "That makes it cowardly, almost an assassination."
While most media reported that Thornton denied murdering O'Sullivan, Bronson said reporters often couched the defendant's version of what occurred in terms of it being his "story," as if to suggest he was fabricating the events.
Media reports also quoted sources calling Thornton "unemployed," "a drifter," "not to be trusted," "just wild," "dangerous" and "an escape risk."
"Dangerous coupled with escape risk is particularly troubling to jurors," Bronson said.
On the other hand, the status of the victim was much more exalted, he said.
"She was sort of the universal victim in the way that she could be a surrogate for our sisters, our mothers or our wives," said Bronson. "She was white, attractive, well-liked . . . so that people in the community could relate."