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Suspect in 5 killings acts as his own attorney

Rodney Alcala faces the death penalty for the third time in the killing of an O.C. girl. This time, he is also accused in killing four L.A. County women.

February 03, 2010|By Paloma Esquivel

Rodney Alcala sat before an Orange County jury Tuesday and took the panel through a long-ago murder case, trying his utmost to sound like a polished defense attorney.

But he's hardly that. The shaggy-haired man has been locked up for 30 years, and he's back in court facing the death penalty for the third time in the killing of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach.

Now, though, Alcala is charged not only in Samsoe's death but also in the rape and murder of four Los Angeles County women. Starting in 2001, while Alcala's second conviction was going through the appeals process, Los Angeles County investigators discovered DNA evidence they say links Alcala to women who were killed in the late 1970s.

Despite the serious charges, Alcala has chosen to serve as his own attorney, a decision Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno thought unwise and opposed. On Tuesday, Alcala gave his opening statement -- three weeks after the trial began -- in front of a packed courtroom of victims' families, reporters and other observers.

He began by recounting the time that had passed since Samsoe was murdered, "about 10,820 days, five hours and 15 minutes ago."

"About 33 days and 16 hours later, I was arrested," he said. "I have been incarcerated ever since."

His performance in the trial might be classified as erratic, ranging from seemingly intimidated to absurd to, at times, knowledgeable.

The former UCLA student is well-spoken and speaks quietly. He has developed something of a rapport with Briseno, who at times guides him through the legal process, and with Matt Murphy, Orange County senior deputy district attorney, whom Alcala often asks to help with exhibits.

In the early parts of the trial, while prosecutors attempted to tie Alcala to the slayings of the four Los Angeles County women, the defendant was almost absent. He asked few questions and made few objections. He waited until a prosecutor had finished interviewing one witness and then broke in quietly with a handful of objections to the testimony, unaware that it was late.

His demeanor changed when prosecutors began presenting the Samsoe case.

Alcala was arrested in 1979, not long after Samsoe was kidnapped and murdered. He has been tried and convicted twice but both convictions were reversed on appeal.

In his opening statement, Alcala made it clear he is single-mindedly concerned with defending himself against the charges in the Samsoe case. He wore the same tan suit he has worn since the trial began in the middle of January and sat in the same spot he uses every day.

He began with a document from his laptop projected on a screen in front of the jury: "The 6 Minute 15 Second Window of Opportunity."

He argued that there was only a short "window" when the ballet student could be kidnapped as she rode her bike to dance class from a friend's apartment and that he would prove he was at Knott's Berry Farm then.

It is rare for a death penalty defendant to forgo the right to an attorney. Risks and challenges for both sides are great, experts say.

"It's difficult to complain about the quality of your representation if you knowingly, willingly represented yourself," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Poor representation by an attorney, he said, is "the biggest reason cases are reversed."

Speaking generally about death penalty defendants acting as their own attorneys, Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Assn., said it's best for both sides to avoid having a defendant represent himself.

"It's like someone saying 'I want to engage in a complicated surgery on myself,' " Burns said.

"The issues associated with these types of cases are often so technical and so complex, it's almost like the judge and the prosecutor and everyone involved in the case has to, in an awkward fashion, hold the defendant's hand and assist," he said. "But at the same time it's an adversarial process, so . . . they cannot assist."

One of the most unusual aspects of the trial has been Alcala's cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. At times, the exchanges have been heated, none more so than when Alcala cross-examined Samsoe's mother, Marianne Connelly.

He repeatedly questioned her about a pair of earrings. Gold ball earrings prosecutors say belong to Connelly were found in Alcala's locker and are evidence in the case.

Alcala read long portions of interviews Connelly gave to police and transcripts from previous trials, all of which aim to show the earrings were not hers and asked if she remembered what she'd said. Connelly repeatedly said she couldn't remember. Then, she stopped answering questions and turned to face the defendant.

"You know if she had earrings on, don't you?" she said. Not long after, the judge asked the jury to step out of the courtroom.

"It's going to be a difficult day to come up and take questions from the person that you feel is responsible for taking a life," he said. He reminded the witness that her interrogator has certain constitutional rights and asked for her patience.

On Tuesday, Alcala returned to the earrings, saying he bought them after he had his ears pierced.

"For me, the facts of the Samsoe case began in the summer of 1978," he told the jury. "That's when I had my left earlobe doubly pierced."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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