In a reprise of a dramatic murder trial 17 years ago, prosecutors on Monday once again set out to close the books on one of Orange County's bloodiest shootings, which left a Garden Grove police officer dead and four other people injured.
John George Brown, 51, who has spent the last 15 years on San Quentin's death row for the killing, was back in a Santa Ana courtroom wearing sunglasses and in a wheelchair. His attorneys said he was in poor health, but declined to elaborate.
According to authorities, Brown, who also goes by the name Gordon Mink, shot and killed 27-year-old Donald Reed in 1980, while Reed and three fellow police officers tried to arrest him on unrelated drug- and assault-related warrants. The California Supreme Court on April 2, 1998, ordered a new trial or a reduced sentence for Mink because potentially exculpatory evidence was not introduced in the original trial.
Assistant Dist. Atty. Bryan Brown, who prosecuted Mink in 1982 when he was convicted and sentenced to death, found himself giving a familiar opening statement.
"Mr. Mink was on the run," the prosecutor told jurors Monday. "He had an heart ailment, and it became very important for Mr. Mink not to go back to prison."
Pointing to the slim-barreled semiautomatic .22-caliber pistol that Mink allegedly used to kill Reed and injure others, the prosecutor said, "This gun was his life insurance."
But Mink's new defense attorney, George Peters, tried to cast doubt on Mink as the shooter, introducing a theory not used in the original trial. Peters alleged that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was conducting an investigation into an arms deal at the bar where Reed was killed. He speculated that someone else may have fired the fatal shots.
"It is crowded [in the bar], wall to wall with people. It's dark and it's dim," Peters said. "The shooter was somebody [standing] very close. Maybe somebody involved with this gun transaction."
Peters told jurors there were many anomalies in the prosecution's case and said he would show "there may have been other suspects in this case."
For Reed's widow and parents, the weight of a new trial so many years later was evident in their serious faces. The dead officer's family attended Monday's proceedings but declined to talk to reporters. Carol Waxman, a crime victims' counselor, stood by them.
"It's been very emotionally difficult" for them, Waxman said. "You can only imagine . . . after 20 years."
Reed was fatally shot in the chest June 7, 1980, at the Cripple Creek Saloon on Garden Grove Boulevard.
Garden Grove Police Sgt. Paul McInerny testified Monday that he and his partner, reserve officer Dwight Henninger, recognized Mink's 1976 Plymouth in the bar's parking lot from a police flier issued earlier that day. McInerny said he called for backup. Reed and his partner joined the first two officers. The four then entered the bar about 11:30 p.m. They spotted Mink. When the officers tried to close in on him, Mink walked toward an exit, McInerny said.
"In retrospect, maybe it was not a good course of action," McInerny said, his voice crackling with emotion at times. "I heard what I thought were fireworks. . . . I saw Don Reed calling for aid. . . . I saw a large amount of blood."
Reed died within minutes. His partner, Glenn Overly, also was shot and came "this close to dying," prosecutor Brown said Monday. Also injured were Henninger and two bar patrons, one of them critically.
After a manhunt, police found Mink two hours later hiding in a bush near the bar. He was convicted and sent to death row. But at issue during his appeal was a blood test performed by the Orange County Sheriff's Department that showed Mink may have taken PCP, or angel dust, a hallucinogenic drug.
The original jury was told of a second and more thorough blood test that showed no signs of drugs, but not the first one. Attorneys who appealed Mink's conviction argued the first drug test could potentially sway jurors about Mink's mental state and that maybe the crime was not premeditated.
The Supreme Court ordered a new trial or that the conviction be downgraded to second-degree murder. The Orange County district attorney's office decided last year to retry the case instead, despite the difficulties inherent in reconstructing so old a case. The trial before Orange County Superior Court Judge John J. Ryan is expected to take several weeks.