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Dana Parsons

Watched a Good Mystery Lately? Try the Overton Trial

March 29, 1995|Dana Parsons

When it comes to murder cases, two themes rich with human drama have been around forever.

One is of the diabolical plotter whose laconic exterior hides a seething inner mandate to kill.

Another is that of the man wrongly accused.

The scenarios probe seemingly opposite extremes of human psychology: What's it like to mastermind someone else's death? What's it like to be falsely branded a murderer?

For the next few weeks, murder mystery fans need look no further than Orange County Superior Court as a jury decides which scenario describes Richard Overton, who has said, "No jury would convict me if it had the facts."

Seven years after his wife, Janet, slumped in the Overtons' driveway in Dana Point and died two hours later in the bathroom, Richard Overton will find out if his prophecy is correct.

It would take twice the space available here to explain why it has taken this long to get to trial, but there's still plenty of story left.

This is a "Columbo" episode waiting to happen. Not to mention a "Quincy" episode. You can throw in a "Matlock" too.

In short, if you have the unpleasant task of being a juror in a murder case, this is the kind of case you'd want.

Jotting down just a few notes after watching opening arguments this week, I was struck by the exotic trappings of this case. Here's a partial glossary of terms, gleaned from only the trial's first two days: cyanide, Scotland Yard, infidelity, artificial intelligence, seven-inch vibrator, spying.

Yes, they somehow all worked their way into the attorneys' opening arguments.

I also made a note that this case will involve a lot of science and that the victim was conducting a long-running affair. Next to that note was the observation that of the 14 jurors and alternates, 10 are men.

The prosecution's theory is straightforward. Overton, it believes, was so increasingly consumed with hatred over his wife's ongoing affair with a colleague that he killed her. Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans said Janet Overton was "chronically poisoned" and that selenium was the most likely candidate. Even so, Evans said, selenium didn't kill her. Cyanide was the fatal source; thus far, Evans has said only that the cyanide was swallowed because it was found in her stomach.

That's where the mystery begins, for as Evans said, cyanide "evaporates into forensic thin air."

Because no one suspected poisoning until six months after Jan Overton's death, only trace amounts were found in her stomach and blood. Defense attorney George Peters Jr. told the jury that his experts will show that, contrary to our layman's notions of cyanide as a rare poison, it exists naturally in the body in various forms and in a multitude of products and foods.

Peters said Overton died of cardiac arrhythmia, notwithstanding the coroner's belated citing of cyanide poisoning as the official cause. In addition, he said, she had ongoing health problems and had made 60 doctor visits the last year of her life.

Peters' opening statement Tuesday was heavy on chemistry, the scientific kind. Evans spent much of his time talking about another kind of chemistry--the kind between the Overtons that, according to Evans, drove the now 66-year-old computer consultant to kill his wife, who was 46 when she died seven years ago.

Evans used Overton's diary to buttress his belief that Overton was obsessed with his wife's affair and his poisoning of her.

With entries like, "She acted pained in the evening and very sleepy around 8 o'clock" and "Jan suspects me of spying on her and set a trap for me," Evans is hoping to convince the jurors that Overton is spooky.

One can almost anticipate a few weeks from now the jurors' deliberations as they debate whether entries like that depict a diarist perversely monitoring his future prey, or merely a concerned husband chronicling his ailing wife's condition and "writing" his way through a painful betrayal.

It's just part of what promises to be a juicy trial.

Thus far, Overton has sat ramrod straight at the defense table, every bit the cool and studious defendant. Tall, with wispy white hair and beard, Overton is not the kind of defendant to emote.

He has the kind of countenance that jurors instinctively will watch, seeing if they can penetrate the exterior. At long last, seven years after his wife's death, a jury will decide what he's been thinking behind that steady gaze.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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