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VENTURA COUNTY

Defense Denies Teen Was a Skinhead

Courts: Testimony ends in the trial of the Oak View defendant accused of killing a homeless man in Ventura.

October 08, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Testimony concluded Monday in the trial of an Oak View teen accused of fatally beating a homeless man last year.

Robert Coffman, 19, is one of four teenagers accused of kicking and throwing rocks at homeless veteran James Clark, 58, as they headed to a beach party June 30, 2001.

Clark died of blows to the head inflicted as he lay in a sleeping bag near the shore.

All four defendants, ages 14 to 19, were charged with murder. The youngest was convicted earlier this year.

As Coffman's trial drew to a close Monday, defense lawyers challenged a police officer's conclusion that the teen is a racist skinhead whose ideology was a motive for the killing.

Ventura Police Officer Dan Swanson, who testified as a gang expert for the prosecution, told jurors that Coffman admitted during police interviews to associating with known skinheads and embracing their white supremacist beliefs.

Swanson said that Coffman is a skinhead based on those interviews, a racially motivated assault on an Ojai high school student two years ago and Nazi writings and drawings found during a search of his home and jail cell.

But under questioning by defense attorney James Farley, Swanson acknowledged that he formed his opinion without talking to Coffman directly.

Swanson could not identify a gang or hate group that the teenager belongs to, and he acknowledged that having racist beliefs is not a crime.

Last week, defense lawyers called to the stand two brothers who lived with Coffman and his family for about a year. Lonnie and Joseph Stanford, who are half black and half white, testified that Coffman was like a brother to them.

Farley asked Swanson how his client could be a racist skinhead if he associated with--let alone shared a room with--people of another race.

Swanson said skinheads have been known to soften their views or accept mixed-race friends.

In other testimony Monday, defense attorneys called a pathologist to testify about how long Clark may have lived after being beaten.

Dr. John Cooper agreed with Ventura County Medical Examiner Ronald O'Halloran's conclusion that Clark died from multiple blows to the head.

Autopsy results show that Clark sustained a fractured skull, a crushed kidney, a broken rib and numerous bruises and abrasions.

O'Halloran was unable to pinpoint the sequence of the injuries, but testified that the kidney wound occurred some time after the head injuries, possibly during a separate assault. He told jurors that Clark could have lived for an hour or more after being attacked.

But Cooper shortened that time frame. He told jurors that Clark showed little brain or facial swelling, which suggests that he died within minutes of the initial attack--not an hour.

Cooper also testified that Clark sustained no head injuries to indicate that he was stomped on. According to earlier court testimony, Coffman told friends he kicked and stomped Clark in the head.

Defense attorneys have suggested that those statements were overheard by witnesses and are unreliable exaggerations.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday morning in Ventura County Superior Court.

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