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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Killer's Sister, Mother Tell of Beatings

Court: During the penalty phase of Kenneth McKinzie's trial, jurors must decide whether to recommend execution or life in prison.

November 11, 1998|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One by one, the women in Kenneth McKinzie's life took the witness stand Tuesday and reluctantly described how the convicted murderer beat and battered them in a manner not unlike the way he killed an elderly Oxnard woman nearly three years ago.

During the first day of testimony in the penalty phase of McKinzie's trial, his younger sister nearly threw up as she recalled their fights.

His ex-girlfriend sobbed uncontrollably after telling jurors about a bar brawl in which he punched her in the face, while denying that he once put a gun in her mouth and threatened to kill her.

And his mother, speaking barely above a whisper, admitted that her only son had once beaten her too.

"He was sorry that he did it," Oxnard resident Betty McKinzie testified, pulling a coat tightly around her shoulders. "He said, 'Mamma, that will never happen again.' "

Last week, McKinzie, 39, was found guilty of first-degree murder for beating and strangling Ruth Avril on Dec. 22, 1995. The 73-year-old woman's body was found in an irrigation ditch near Ormond Beach by two surfers the next morning.

In addition to murder, the jury found that McKinzie killed Avril during a robbery and burglary--special findings that launched the capital case into a penalty phase in which the same jury must now decide whether the defendant should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In her opening statement Tuesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl Morgan told jurors that during the two-day penalty phase, they would hear evidence about McKinzie's lengthy criminal history.

She described the defendant as a four-time felon who battered his relatives and loved-ones before culminating a life of crime by killing Avril.

But defense attorney Willard Wiksell said he would try to show the jury a different side to his client, whom he described as a loving father of two and a decent human being who despite his crime deserves the right to live.

"We are entitled to mercy," he said. "We are entitled to you giving him a break, and we are going to ask for that."

*

Prosecutors began by calling McKinzie's 32-year-old sister, Darlene, to the stand. An Oxnard resident, she is the youngest of three siblings and was clearly upset by the questions posed about her relationship with her brother.

At first, she said she could not remember whether he grabbed her by the throat and threw her across the room during an argument in January 1990. But after being shown a copy of a police report from that incident, she acknowledged it had happened.

Reluctantly, she also told jurors that during the same fight McKinzie struck their mother. And under further pressure by the prosecutor, she admitted that Kenneth McKinzie beat and kicked her during a 1995 fight.

After acknowledging that she once told an investigator her brother beat her, her older sister and her mother at least 20 times, Darlene McKinzie put her hands to her face and told the judge: "I think I'm going to throw up."

On cross-examination, the sister collected herself and told the jury: "The incident that happened, it's because I'm hard headed--I love my brother very much."

McKinzie's ex-girlfriend, Erania McClelland, also told the jury that the defendant battered her during their six-year relationship.

"We had some bouts at times," McClelland said, recalling a 1988 fight outside a bar in which she said the defendant punched her in the face and gave her a black eye after finding her with another man. Fighting back tears, she admitted that she told police McKinzie would not stop hitting her.

*

As Wiksell began his cross-examination, McClelland began to sob and bury her face in her hands. "It's hard," she whispered, explaining that she worries about how her and McKinzie's 16-year-old daughter will cope without a father.

"How do you feel about him right now?" Wiksell asked.

"Scared. Scared for my daughter," she said. "I'm always going to love him. He gave me a beautiful daughter. We had some good times. I can't imagine this is happening. She loves her dad so much."

The daughter is expected to testify for the defense on Thursday, when testimony resumes after Veterans Day.

In other testimony, McClelland told the jury that McKinzie never threatened her with a firearm as she had told authorities, and testified that she was drunk when she spoke with a district attorney investigator about the alleged incident.

But after McClelland was excused, prosecutors called investigator Dennis Fitzgerald to the stand. The defendant's former girlfriend was not drunk, he said, and clearly recalled in an interview with him an incident in which McKinzie allegedly put a gun in her mouth.

The final witness called Tuesday was the defendant's mother, Betty McKinzie.

Moving slowly across the courtroom, she took the stand as a defense witness and in a barely audible voice told jurors about the little boy she loves--not the murderer they've convicted.

"I love him," she said, explaining why she has come to court almost every day of the trial. "That's the only boy I've got."

Betty McKinzie admitted that her son hit her once, during the same confrontation described by her daughter, Darlene. She said that was the only time he ever assaulted her. She called her son affectionate, and recalled how he would clean her house for her.

"He liked to see me happy," she testified. "He's just a big baby. That's about the size of it. And I love him."

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