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The Mundane Murder Trial Down the Hall

April 06, 1995|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three doors down from the "trial of the century," a gruesome stabbing-murder trial has proceeded apace with only one prosecutor and one defense attorney, a single day of DNA testimony and absolutely no media attention.

Computer monitors and 87-inch video screens? Forget it. In the Ernest Dwayne Jones case, a dearth of pushpins resulted in overlapping photos of evidence on an old-fashioned bulletin board.

Videocassette players and remote-control cameras? No way. When the prosecutor was asked to move the overhead projector to give jurors a better view of DNA slides, he didn't have an extension cord.

One other difference between the case of Jones, who was charged with raping and stabbing his girlfriend's mother, and that of O.J. Simpson, accused of viciously slashing his ex-wife and her friend to death: Prosecutors sought capital punishment in the Jones case, and he is likely to be sentenced to death Friday.

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Commentators frequently assert that the Simpson case provides an eager public with an illustrative primer on criminal justice. But in truth, the Jones case is far more reflective of day-to-day life in America's largest county criminal court system.

For one thing, most murder trials--even those involving the ultimate penalty--rarely draw so much as a hiccup from the media.

"Once," recalled Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeffrey Ramseyer, who is prosecuting Jones, "a reporter came in and said he was bored with the O.J. case and wanted to see what was going on elsewhere on the floor.

"There's a certain irony about the fact there has been no reporting on our case at all."

In fact, the machinery of death has become so mundane in Los Angeles County that district attorney's officials are not sure how many death penalty trials were held under their jurisdiction last year.

The concurrent Jones and Simpson trials also raise two significant questions about the criminal justice system: whether moneyed defendants can buy a superior defense and whether punishment is proportionate for similar crimes.

Indeed, the foreman of the jury that recommended that Jones be put to death declares that a legal Dream Team and a bottomless wallet could have resulted in a more favorable outcome for Jones.

"If he had had Johnnie Cochran and his resources, he wouldn't be sentenced to death," foreman Robert Reagan said in an interview with The Times last week.

"I base this on nothing more than a gut feeling," continued Reagan, who emphasizes that he believes the Jones jury reached the correct decision. "(But) if they brought in six psychiatrists . . . if they brought in other experts and overwhelmed us with clever data and impressive people, they might very well have at least got the jury to hang."

Ramseyer, for his part, believes the Jones trial served as a model of legal justice, based on its brevity, fairness and outcome. "I think the system worked well in this case, I'd say that for sure."

Jones' attorney, veteran Deputy Public Defender Fred Manaster, terms as "pure speculation" the notion that additional resources would have made a difference.

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Jones, who grew up in a broken home with alcoholic parents, was convicted of killing Julia Miller, 50, a defense industry accountant, in an August, 1992, attack. Miller's husband of 30 years, Chester, discovered his wife's gagged body--with two kitchen knives sticking out of her neck--in their Southwest Los Angeles bedroom after returning from work at the Department of Water and Power.

Chester Miller was not called to testify at the trial. That is because he is no longer alive. "My father grieved himself to death eight months after my mother passed," daughter Pamela, who had lived with Jones for almost a year, told the jury.

The public defender's office, making use of limited government resources, was able to call a pair of expert witnesses with impressive resumes in its attempt to keep Jones off Death Row: the vice chairman of the UCLA department of psychiatry and a former San Quentin associate warden.

At a one-day DNA hearing during the trial, without jurors present, an expert from the public defender's office questioned the prosecution's expert DNA witness. However, once Superior Court Judge Edward Ferns ruled that jurors could hear the DNA testimony, Manaster did not cross-examine the witness, who linked Jones to the crime scene through his semen.

Instead, the wiry defendant took the witness stand himself and essentially admitted to the killing, insisting that it was not pre-planned, that the victim sought to attack him first, and that he did not recall inflicting the wounds.

The strategy, an accepted if infrequently used defense practice in death penalty cases, failed to make any difference.

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