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Second mistrial declared in death of girl, 4, who plunged 120 feet

Jurors deadlock in the trial of a father who was accused of throwing the youngster from a cliff. Defense calls the incident a tragic accident.

October 06, 2009|Jack Leonard

A judge declared a mistrial Monday after jurors deadlocked in the murder case against a former airline baggage handler accused of hurling his 4-year-old daughter off a Rancho Palos Verdes cliff.

The announcement marked the second time a jury has deadlocked over whether Cameron John Brown threw his daughter from the bluff top, as prosecutors argue, or whether her death was a tragic accident, as he contends.

Sitting in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom, the girl's mother gasped quietly when the jury's foreman declared that the panel was evenly split between finding Brown guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Brown, 48, showed little emotion during the hearing.

Foreman Mark Dreskin, a Kaiser Permanente physician, said jurors were disappointed that they couldn't reach a verdict. Ultimately, he said, jurors believed Brown was responsible for his daughter's death but disagreed over whether Brown had intended to kill her.

"Nobody thought he was not guilty," Dreskin said outside the courtroom. "We had a tough time."

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office must now decide whether to pursue a third trial against Brown, who has remained in jail since his arrest in 2003.

Outside court, Brown's attorneys portrayed the result as a victory and called on prosecutors to drop the murder charge. Defense attorney Pat Harris said involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison, would have been a more appropriate charge from the outset.

"This concept that he took her up there and threw her off the cliff has been roundly rejected," Harris said. He said he would ask a judge to release Brown on bail. "This is a tragedy both from the fact that the daughter is dead and the fact that a man has been falsely accused and remains in jail."

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum noted that none of the jurors in either trial voted to acquit Brown in the death of his daughter, Lauren. The first trial ended in 2006 with two jurors voting to convict Brown of first-degree murder, eight voting for second-degree murder and two favoring manslaughter.

"Every single juror has found that he's criminally responsible for Lauren's death," Hum said. He said the district attorney's office will decide this month whether to seek another trial.

Besides Brown, there were no witnesses when Lauren fell to her death Nov. 8, 2000. Brown told sheriff's investigators that his daughter slipped and fell while throwing rocks off the 120-foot cliff at Inspiration Point.

But detectives quickly grew suspicious, noting that Brown appeared to lack emotion after the incident. They questioned why a father would take his child to such a secluded, dangerous spot and let her roam.

During the seven-week retrial, Hum alleged that Brown never wanted his child and initially urged her mother, British immigrant Sarah Key-Marer, to get an abortion after he learned she was pregnant.

When she refused, he tried to have her deported and fired from her job, the prosecutor argued.

As Brown later struggled to pay $1,000 a month in child support, he decided that killing the girl would hurt her mother and ease his financial troubles, Hum told the jury.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor played a video of Lauren for jurors in which the little girl with long blond hair smiled broadly as she wobbled on a skateboard, swung from monkey bars and climbed over large tractor tires at a playground.

But Brown's attorneys said the prosecution offered a distorted portrait of their client. Brown, they said, initially harbored suspicions that the baby was not his, but embraced his daughter after a paternity test. He even sought a court order to allow him to spend extra time with her, Harris told jurors.

Both sides argued that the physical evidence supported their versions of the incident.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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