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Overton Found Guilty of Wife's Cyanide Murder

May 09, 1995|KEN ELLINGWOOD and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — A jury Monday convicted Dana Point computer consultant Richard K. Overton in the deadly 1988 cyanide poisoning of his wife, bringing to a finale one of Orange County's oddest and longest-running murder cases.

Overton, 66, sat impassively, as he did throughout the six-week retrial, shaking his head slightly after the verdict on a single charge of first-degree murder was read in Orange County Superior Court.

Jurors deliberated only six hours before deciding Overton poisoned Janet L. Overton, 46, an elected trustee of the Capistrano Unified School District who collapsed in the family's driveway on her way to a whale-watching outing Jan. 24, 1988.

The bizarre case centered heavily on diary entries by Richard K. Overton that revealed the couple's mutual hatred and the defendant's bitter suspicion that his wife had numerous sexual affairs. A first trial ended in a mistrial in 1992, when Overton's former defense attorney suffered a severe depression and could not continue.

Because the murder conviction carries a special circumstance of poisoning, Overton could receive a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole when he is sentenced Sept. 1 by Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald. Overton suffers from a heart ailment and family members said he has been in poor health in recent weeks.

"It was kind of a long one for us," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans, who said he was pleased and relieved by the verdict. "It's a weird one."

Jurors said they were persuaded of Overton's guilt by the journal entries, scientific evidence and testimony that Overton had added drain cleaner and prescription drugs to drinks consumed by an ex-wife, Dorothy Boyer, who testified at both trials. Prosecutors contended that years before the slaying, Overton was slowly poisoning Janet Overton with the metal selenium and that the two women suffered nearly identical symptoms.

"Everything just added up," said Michael Lyman, the jury foreman. "He has a sociopathic personality. He's smiling to you at breakfast, but then you don't know exactly what he's got going on behind the eyes."

Juror Art Shappy said the panel found it damaging that Overton had allegedly tampered with Boyer's milk and coffee after the two divorced.

"It let us know he was capable of this," Shappy said.

Overton's defense attorney, George A. Peters, said after the verdict that his client "seems all right."

Peters said he plans to ask for a new trial on the grounds the jury never should have heard about the alleged poisoning of Boyer. If that fails, Peters said, the issue should provide grounds for a strong appeal.

Jurors in the second trial did not hear damaging testimony offered in the original trial, when Overton admitted on the witness stand that he spiked Boyer's coffee with prescription drugs, saying he thought it was "a neat joke." But he denied tampering with her milk, wine and shampoo. Overton did not testify in the most recent trial.

Peters said he was surprised by the swiftness of the verdict, contending the jury must not have fully considered the complicated scientific evidence presented by the defense.

Peters had argued that Janet Overton was in ill health and died suddenly of natural causes. Some defense experts testified that the cyanide found in her stomach and blood may have resulted from her ulcer medication and was detected in amounts too minute to kill.

Robert D. Chatterton, Overton's attorney during the first trial, said Monday the prosecution's case rested largely on circumstantial evidence, including the prior alleged poisoning of Boyer and mysterious illnesses suffered by Janet Overton.

"My personal opinion was he wasn't guilty," Chatterton said. "I really expected that it would be a hung jury or not guilty. I didn't expect a guilty verdict, but I'm looking at the scientific evidence."

Overton's fourth and current wife, Carol, decried the prosecution's handling of the case, saying Evans relied on "innuendo" to persuade jurors her husband killed Janet Overton, his third wife.

"He didn't do that," she said.

"I'm shocked, totally shocked," added Bill Lynam, a longtime friend of Richard and Janet Overton's who attended the trial daily. "There was no smoking gun. They could not prove that Jan died of cyanide. . . . If I thought Richard had done her in, I wouldn't be standing by him."

But others, including Boyer, were less surprised by the verdict. Although she declined to comment directly on the verdict, Boyer said: "I thought (prosecutor) Chris Evans did a wonderful job."

Another of Overton's former wives exulted at the news of his conviction.

"Wonderful! Wonderful!" said Karoline Wallace, who had a daughter with Overton after marrying him in 1966. That marriage ended in annulment two years later, when she discovered he was married to Boyer at the same time.

"When this happened, I knew he was guilty, because he's not a nice person," she said.

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