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Teen Convicted of Murder in Beating Death of Transient

Jury finds that the attack on the homeless man as he lay in a sleeping bag near the beach in Ventura was premeditated.

October 17, 2002|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

An Oak View teenager was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery Wednesday after a jury found that he deliberately beat and kicked a homeless man to death last year, after stealing the transient's few possessions.

After four days of deliberation, jurors rejected defense arguments that 19-year-old Robert Coffman never intended to kill homeless Army veteran James Clark, 58, when he and three other teenagers assaulted the man as he lay in a sleeping bag near the beach in Ventura.

Defense attorneys conceded that Coffman participated in the attack. But they argued that the evidence of premeditation was weak and urged jurors to find Coffman guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a lesser sentence.

One female juror dabbed tears from her eyes as Superior Court Judge Ken Riley read the verdicts. The panel of five men and seven women left the courthouse under police escort and declined to talk about the case.

"I think they did the right thing," said Tom Clark, the victim's nephew. "This didn't just happen. [Coffman] purposely did this."

Prosecutor Stacy Ratner said the jury ultimately adopted her theory of the case, but worked hard for days before reaching a consensus. Jurors asked questions and requested that the testimony of several witnesses be read back.

In addition to murder and robbery, Coffman was found guilty of attempted murder in connection with the stabbing of 19-year-old Daniel McGrath at the Ventura beachfront promenade a day after Clark's slaying on June 30, 2001.

The jury also returned special findings that Coffman used a knife and inflicted great bodily injury in the McGrath attack. According to court testimony, the victim was walking with his ex-girlfriend when three teenagers, including Coffman, confronted him and started a fight. McGrath was stabbed five times in the chest, arm and back.

"It was a very brutal situation," he said Wednesday, standing outside the courtroom after the verdicts were announced. Coffman "deserves the time."

The defendant, a tall, dark-haired young man whom prosecutors portrayed as a violent white supremacist, faces a life prison term when sentenced Nov. 15.

Coffman showed no emotion and stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read.

His mother wept and cried out, "Robert, I love you!" as he was led to a holding cell.

Coffman remains jailed without bail.

As he left the courthouse, defense attorney James Farley said his client knows that his actions were wrong and is remorseful. The teenager will not be eligible for parole until age 59.

The slaying of Clark occurred after a group of teens stumbled over the sleeping transient as they headed to a beach party. The teens allegedly stole Clark's backpack and a jar of pennies, then kicked and stoned him. According to testimony, Coffman told friends that he later returned and kicked the injured man a second time.

Clark died after suffering blunt-force injuries, including a crushed kidney, a broken rib and a possible skull fracture.

Police later arrested Coffman, Rocky Mattley, Timothy Becker and Christopher Dunham. During police interviews, Coffman admitted kicking "a bum."

Ventura County prosecutors charged all four suspects with murder but decided to prosecute Mattley in Juvenile Court because he was 14 at the time of the slaying. Mattley was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving time in the California Youth Authority.Becker and Dunham, both 19 and of Ventura, are awaiting trial.

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