A man accused of ordering the deaths of two witnesses against him was found guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder, more than a year after a previous guilty verdict was thrown out by a judge amid accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Kenneth Leighton, 39, was convicted in Los Angeles County Superior Court in the slayings of Jamie Navaroli, 36, and his girlfriend, April Mahoney, 25. The couple, who were shot execution-style in the driveway of their West Hills home on Nov. 4, 1998, were witnesses in a burglary case against Leighton.
Leighton, according to Los Angeles police, thought that a burglary conviction would count as a third-strike offense and that he would face life in prison. Police believe that Randall Williams, an associate of Leighton's, was enlisted by him to kill the couple before they could testify against him. Navaroli died at the scene, and Mahoney died of her injuries more than a month later.
The 12-person jury deliberated for about a day and a half before reaching a verdict in the six-week trial, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Sortino. Key evidence presented by the prosecution, Sortino said, were ballistics reports that tied bullets in Leighton's home to ones used in the slayings.
"That contained some of the most critical pieces of evidence," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin McCormick, who assisted Sortino.
Also crucial was the testimony of West Valley LAPD Det. Dave Szabo, who was in a Northridge hospital room when Mahoney, regaining consciousness, said "Randy" had shot her. Days later, she identified Williams as her assailant from a photographic lineup.
The defense tried to paint the prosecution's more than 50 witnesses as unreliable due to narcotics use and criminal activity, Sortino said. Leighton's attorneys, Deputy Alternate Public Defenders Henry Hall and Linda Wieder, could not be reached for comment.
Leighton and Williams had been on trial together in 2001 with separate juries. The Williams case ended in a hung jury, and Leighton, after being convicted, was granted a new trial by Superior Court Judge Terry A. Green.
The judge ruled that Leighton's rights were violated when Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Duarte allegedly altered a witness' statement and did not notify defense attorneys.
In February 2002, Duarte was fined $1,000 for his actions. Williams' new trial date will be set Monday, Sortino said.
Leighton will be sentenced by Judge Larry Fidler on March 27. He faces a sentence of life in state prison without parole.
Szabo said the families of the victims "will be ecstatic" about the outcome.
"Justice has been served today," Szabo said.