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Lawyers for Accused Cop Killer Face Uphill Battle

Courts: The county's juries are usually conservative and friendly toward police. But Daniel Tuffree's public defenders have assembled what some say is a good case against a first-degree murder conviction.

July 29, 1996|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the last motions settled and a jury almost seated, Daniel Allan Tuffree is preparing this week to face opening arguments on trial in conservative, police-friendly Ventura County on charges that he murdered a policeman.

And if jurors convict Tuffree of first-degree murder, they will then decide whether he should be sentenced to die.

Jury selection began in May. And in the months since, lawyers have waded through more than 300 prospective jurors before finally choosing a panel of 12.

They also have settled on five alternates, although there could be some changes as the two sides hash out last-minute arguments about pretrial publicity.

The conventional courthouse wisdom is that an accused cop killer in Ventura County can expect the toughest fate the justice system has to offer. Yet Tuffree's attorneys have assembled--according to their peers--an uncommonly strong case in his defense.

And fellow lawyers say that if Deputy Public Defenders Richard Holly and Howard Asher handle the case well they have a chance--better than lawyers for most accused cop killers--of beating the first-degree charge down to second-degree murder or even manslaughter and saving Tuffree from the death penalty.

This is what they are up against:

* Tuffree has confessed to the Aug. 4 slaying, according to court records of his police interview.

* He faces a veteran lead prosecutor who is a capital punishment expert and won death sentences on his last two capital cases.

* Tuffree's attorneys must plead his case barely two weeks after two more Southern California police officers were slain. They must persuade jurors that this particular police killing was self-defense or, at worst, the act of a mentally unbalanced man who does not deserve execution.

* Finally, there is the strong, heroic image of Tuffree's alleged victim. Simi Valley Police Officer Michael F. Clark was a husband, the father of a young child and a popular cop with both this department and his former colleagues in the LAPD's Devonshire Division.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors spent nearly a year in tight-lipped preparation for the case.

They gathered reams of evidence, ranging from Tuffree's medical records and a scale model of his house to the deformed bullet that the coroner pulled from the slain police officer's body.

They haggled their way through dozens of hearings on what evidence the judge will let the jury hear and see.

In recent weeks, Superior Court Judge Allan L. Steele has locked the public out of several hearings on evidence such as Tuffree's interview with police. The Times has filed legal papers seeking to have records of those closed hearings unsealed.

And this morning, attorneys will look on as Steele seeks to learn whether the already-chosen jurors have been influenced in any way by reports on the other recent police slayings.

Then attorneys are to make their opening arguments in a case predicted to last four to six weeks.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter Kossoris will push for first-degree murder. He and co-counsel Patricia Murphy have said they will argue that Tuffree bore a grudge against Simi Valley police for confiscating a gun of his three years earlier.

*

The prosecutors have said they will argue that Tuffree planned to shoot any police officer who entered his property. That he armed himself well.

And that he shot to kill.

But public defenders Holly and Asher have argued in past court hearings that their evidence will tell a different story:

Clark and fellow Officers Anthony Anzilotti and Michael Pierce should not have been at Tuffree's house in the first place, they will argue.

The day of the shooting, Tuffree bitterly complained to his insurance company on the phone because a pharmacy would not refill his Valium prescription. Insurance workers who spoke with Tuffree but never saw him, believed Tuffree was drunk and on drugs, and called police. And police were warned as they arrived that Tuffree was unstable and owned guns.

Attorneys plan to say that Tuffree sat inside his house hurting no one while the officers approached with pistols drawn.

And the public defenders intend to argue that the police shot first and Tuffree merely fired back in self-defense.

It is a tough sell, other attorneys say, but it could work.

"Even though it is a police officer, it would seem to me that this is a strong defense case," said George Eskin, a Ventura defense attorney who has served as both prosecutor and public defender.

"I personally feel that a fair-minded jury is going to have difficulty with the prosecution of a man who's in his house minding his own business, not holding hostages, not shooting his guns out the window, not causing a disturbance" before the fatal gunfight ensued, Eskin said.

James Farley, another veteran defense attorney, agreed.

"You don't have the things going for you [in other police-slaying cases] that Howard and Rich have in this case," he said.

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