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Death Wasn't Intended, Defense Insists

Trial: Oak View teen's role in transient's beating doesn't warrant first-degree murder conviction, lawyer argues.


An Oak View teenager accused of beating a homeless veteran to death is guilty of taking part in the attack, but he had no intention of killing James Clark, defense attorneys said Wednesday.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a whodunit," lawyer James Farley told jurors Wednesday during closing arguments in the trial of Robert Coffman, 19. "He did commit the crime. It's up to you to decide what is the degree of this crime."

Defense attorneys are asking for a second-degree murder conviction, while prosecutors maintain Coffman is guilty of first-degree murder. A first-degree conviction could result in a decade more in prison.

Coffman is one of four teenagers accused of kicking and throwing rocks at Clark, who was 58, as they headed to a beach party June 30, 2001. Clark died of blows to the head as he lay in a sleeping bag near the Ventura River bottom.

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

Using a high-tech presentation and several graphic photographs of the victim and crime scene, a prosecutor called for the jury to find Coffman guilty of first-degree murder. Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy Ratner argued that his willful, deliberate and premeditated actions made his crime a first-degree offense.

Coffman is also charged with robbery and attempted murder in the stabbing of Daniel McGrath, 19, at the Ventura beach promenade a day after Clark's slaying.

"It is, I think, an understatement that they had a conscious disregard for this man's life," Ratner said. "You can't stand around and watch people kick someone over and over in the head and not expect that they won't die."

Farley countered that if Coffman had intended to kill Clark, he would have used the knife he carried that night.

Last week, jurors saw a police videotape in which Coffman admitted to repeatedly kicking Clark, whom he called "the bum."

Some members of Clark's family began to cry when enlarged photographs of his battered skull were shown.

"It was shocking," said sister-in-law Janet de Spain. "We keep thinking about how James suffered."

The boys argued with Clark over a marijuana pipe, Coffman said, and they all began kicking Clark until he was coughing and spitting blood.

Coffman said he left shortly after, but testimony played for the jury last week contradicts that version of events.

A girl, now 16, told police that Coffman described the attack to her and others, telling them that after the group beating, he returned to the scene and asked a bleeding and snoring Clark, "You want a deeper sleep?"

"The defendant left the scene of that beating and then went back," Ratner said. "There's only one reason to go back and that's to kill."

Ratner tried to offer a motive by saying Coffman was a "racist" who, according to skinhead ideology, believed homeless people are worthless.

"The only time we saw any emotion ... was when he was worried about his own well-being," Ratner said, referring to the police video. Even after the police were interrogating him about the slaying of Clark, who was white, "he still can't get himself to consider Mr. Clark more than a bum."

Farley has denied that his client is a racist. Although Coffman told police he adhered to skinhead ideology when younger, two of Coffman's biracial friends testified that the defendant was "like a brother" to them.

"At 18, sometimes you think you know all the answers," Farley told the jury. "The problem is you can't know all the answers because you don't even know the questions."

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