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Ventura County

Evidence of Teen's Beliefs Permitted

Testimony: Robert Coffman's alleged white supremacist views may be introduced at his trial in the beating death of a transient, judge rules.

September 21, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence that a Ventura teen's white supremacist beliefs led to the beating and stoning death of a homeless man, a judge ruled Friday.

Robert Coffman, 19, is one of four teenagers accused of pelting transient James Clark, 58, with rocks and kicking him in the head as he lay in his sleeping bag near the Ventura River last year.

Coffman, an Oak View resident, is charged with murder and robbery in Clark's slaying.

He is also charged with attempted murder in the stabbing of a man at the Ventura beachfront promenade a day after the slaying.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley granted a prosecution request to join the murder and attempted murder cases. Defense lawyers had hoped to keep the charges separate.

Riley also ruled that prosecutors could present evidence of Coffman's alleged involvement in a white supremacist group and elicit testimony from a gang expert on whether Clark's killing was gang-related.

Defense lawyers Kay Duffy and James Farley argued that the proposed testimony is not relevant and would serve only to inflame the jury. Coffman is not charged with a gang offense or a hate crime.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy Ratner countered that Coffman targeted Clark because he was homeless and thus, in the defendant's white supremacist views, not worthy of living in society. Ratner described the attack as a "boot party" in which white supremacists kick and stomp a victim in the head.

According to police, Coffman and three other teenagers were partying at the beach the night of June 29, 2001, when they stumbled into Clark, beat him and stole his belongings.

Clark, a military veteran who had roamed Ventura's streets for years, had been living in a river-bottom encampment.

His body was found the morning after the attack. The coroner concluded that Clark died from blows to his head.

Coffman is described by the other teenagers as the instigator of the assault. He is the second suspect to be tried in Clark's death.

Timothy Becker, 19, and Christopher Dunham, 19, both of Ventura, are awaiting trial.

Earlier this year, a Juvenile Court judge convicted Rocky Mattley, 15, of Ventura of second-degree murder and ordered him committed to the California Youth Authority.

Mattley, Becker and Dunham are listed as potential prosecution witnesses at Coffman's trial, which is scheduled to begin next week.

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