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Answers Sought on Slaying

Prosecutors explain to appellate court their reasons for insisting the Mickey Thompson murder case is O.C.'s.

October 24, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Appellate court justices pressed an Orange County prosecutor to explain Thursday why his office is continuing to insist it should be allowed to prosecute a Laguna Beach businessman for the slayings of racing legend Mickey Thompson and his wife, who were gunned down in front of their San Gabriel Valley estate 15 years ago.

"You've got to admit that if there is evidence, it's pretty tenuous," said Justice William F. Rylaarsdam. "Why go through all this ... and not just go to the Los Angeles district attorney and ask them to take the case?"

Michael Goodwin, 58, has been in jail since 2001, held on suspicion of arranging the killings -- allegedly an act of retaliation. Much of that time has been devoted to arguments over whether Orange County has the right to handle the case. Prosecutors say evidence shows Goodwin planned the killings in Orange County, where he lived and worked at the time.

"Just because [Los Angeles County] clearly has venue doesn't mean we don't," Deputy Dist. Atty. James Mulgrew told the three judges on the state 4th District Court of Appeal during the 90-minute Santa Ana courtroom hearing Thursday.

The justices' eventual ruling could be critical to the case.

If the appellate court rules that Orange County does not have jurisdiction, Goodwin could be freed. Though such a ruling could give the Los Angeles County district attorney's office or the state attorney general the opening to charge Goodwin, neither has shown interest.

Whatever the ruling, it will probably result in an appeal to the state Supreme Court, both sides agree.

Mickey and Trudy Thompson were fatally shot in their driveway as they were leaving for work the morning of March 16, 1988. Two masked men who ambushed the couple escaped on bicycles. Neither has been found.

Prosecutors say the killings were in retaliation for a legal fight between Thompson and Goodwin, one-time business partners who had a bitter falling-out. Goodwin has pleaded not guilty to charges that he orchestrated the killings.

A 9-millimeter gun that prosecutors initially said Goodwin provided to the killers has since been eliminated as a murder weapon. It had been one of the arguing points for prosecuting Goodwin in Orange County, since the gun was found at Goodwin's Dana Point home.

Goodwin is still tied to the killings, Mulgrew said, because a witness told a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy that a stun gun found at the crime scene resembled one she had seen in his Laguna Beach home 16 years before.

When Rylaarsdam pressed Mulgrew on which actions had to have taken place in Orange County, the prosecutor said that if Goodwin did plan the slayings, he would have had to travel from Laguna Beach to hire and equip the killers and conduct surveillance at the Thompson home in Bradbury.

Goodwin's attorney, Jeffrey Friedman, disagreed with that logic.

"His arguments consist of hypotheses upon hypotheses," Friedman said. "They are relying on the furthest degree of stretching their imaginations and distorting the truth."

During the hearing, Friedman raised concerns that Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas' friendship and business relationship with Thompson's sister, Collene Campbell, motivated him to pursue the case. Campbell, active in Orange County politics, has championed Goodwin's prosecution.

Rackauckas has denied any conflict of interest, and a judge last year rejected an attempt to disqualify him from the case.

Sitting in the front row of the courtroom Thursday, Campbell folded her arms and swore audibly as Friedman spoke.

Mulgrew and Friedman agreed that even after considering the justices' queries, they have no idea what the appellate court will do or when it will announce its decision.

"What is said on the bench and what decision they eventually make are two different things," Mulgrew said after the hearing. "You really can't project what will happen."

In prior hearings, justices have leaned toward prosecutors, Friedman said, adding that the pendulum has since swung back. "If one can judge by the questions," he said, "they're right in the middle."

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