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Defense in Murder Case Blames Person Who Has Immunity

Lawyer says the then-juvenile sister of a man on trial in the deaths of two women in 1992 is the real killer. She can't be prosecuted.

April 22, 2006|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

In April 1992, someone entered Mayda Porras' Cerritos home and shot the mother of four to death. The killer also fatally shot the housekeeper, stopping to reload a .357 magnum in the middle of the attack.

Porras' four adult children immediately suspected their neighbor's son, 20-year-old Derrick Snowden, who had moved to Nevada but recently had been seen back in the neighborhood. Years before, Snowden had been sent to the California Youth Authority for burglary after Porras testified against him.

But no eyewitnesses, fingerprints, murder weapon or DNA tied Snowden to the scene, and the case lost momentum for a decade -- until a break came in 2002.

Now 37, Derrick Snowden is being tried on two murder charges in Los Angeles Superior Court in Norwalk -- but there's a twist. Snowden's lawyer has argued that it was his younger sister who committed the crimes -- and she, the court already has ruled, cannot be prosecuted.

It is a circumstance that legal experts say is so rare as to be unheard of in California.

Although there is no statute of limitations on murder, neither adult nor juvenile court would have jurisdiction over Monique Snowden, who was 14 at the time of the murders but 26 when the case was filed in December 2003.

To the prosecution, Derrick Snowden is the clear culprit -- not his sister, a college-educated married mother with no criminal record. By contrast, Derrick Snowden has a history of crack cocaine and methamphetamine addiction and burglary. He also had a reason to resent Porras.

Depending on whom the jury believes, either Derrick Snowden goes to prison for murder or nobody does.

Thus Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin is as vehement in his defense of Monique Snowden as in his prosecution of her brother.

"The evidence will demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that Monique Snowden did not go across the street, pull the trigger and shoot those two women," Lewin told the court in his opening statement.

The defense hopes to prove just the opposite. The physical evidence points to Monique Snowden, not Derrick, defense attorney Ann Maloney Dawidziak said, and relatives will testify that Monique confessed the crime to them in 1992.

"The bottom line is I expect the facts and circumstantial evidence to show that Monique Snowden is the person responsible for these murders," Dawidziak told the jury. "She is the one with motive, means and opportunity."

In 1992, 14-year-olds could not be prosecuted as adults, so Monique Snowden can't be tried in adult court, several attorneys said. She also is outside the purview of the juvenile justice system, which can hold someone in custody only until age 25.

"At this point, for all intents and purposes, even if she were prosecuted in juvenile court, there wouldn't be anything available to the court in terms of a place to house her. She would essentially be allowed to remain home," said Cyn Yamashiro, director of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School and a former public defender with the Los Angeles County public defender's office.

Whatever the outcome of this trial, a rare judicial occurrence should not be viewed as symbolic of a wider problem, said Teri Malone, a visiting professor of law at USC.

"Many crimes are never solved, and many crimes never have anybody pay for them," she said. "What makes this situation odd is that we could conceivably identify the wrongdoer and lack any legal ability to hold that person accountable. But systems can't account for every eventuality."

Since 1995, suspects as young as 14 have been eligible to be tried as adults, said San Bernardino attorney Robert Alvarengo, a former public defender.

Were such a crime committed today, no amount of time would keep someone from being prosecuted. "But you have to go by the statute as it was written at the time," he said. "I've never seen a case like this."

But though implicating someone else is a standard defense strategy, Alvarengo and other attorneys said, the risk in this case is whether a jury will be alienated by an effort to pin a double murder on a 14-year-old girl.

"It's a good starting place for the defense, but I mean there's something unseemly about putting the [sister's] future at risk," said Laurie Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School. "Even if she's never tried in this case, she will have it hanging over her head that she's a murderer.

"I think this case may well be decided on her cross examination," Levinson said. Monique Snowden is scheduled to testify during the trial, which is expected to last two to three more weeks. If convicted, Derrick Snowden faces life in prison without parole.


When it was built in 1977, Shadow Park was one of Cerritos' most exclusive neighborhoods, with spacious homes and three gated entrances. Idyllic, quiet and safe, it was part of the transformation of Cerritos, which was incorporated in 1956 as Dairy Valley and where cows had outnumbered people.

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