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Jury acquits Park of strangling aspiring model

With angry cries by spectators, Kelly Soo Park is cleared of killing Juliana Redding, despite the presence of her DNA at the crime scene.

June 04, 2013|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times

Kelly Soo Park's DNA was all over the crime scene where an aspiring model lay strangled.

It was on the victim's clothing and the inside of the locked front door of her Santa Monica apartment. It was on the victim's cellphone, which had been used to make a 911 call that did not go through, and the knob of a stove that was left on, filling the home with gas. It was even on the victim's neck.

The evidence was overwhelming, a prosecutor told a jury last month, arguing that Park killed Juliana Redding as part of a business dispute.

On Tuesday, however, the jury disagreed.

After more than a week of deliberations, jurors acquitted Park of murder, sparking an emotional scene in the downtown courtroom that was packed with her supporters as well as friends and relatives of the victim.

Park, 47, began crying as the verdict was read. Behind her, in the front row of the courtroom audience, stunned friends of Redding wept.

"Murderer!" a woman in the front row yelled.

"This is a travesty of justice," one nearby man said loudly.

"Go to hell!" a woman shouted toward Park.

Jurors never explained their verdict, avoiding reporters by leaving the courthouse via a freight elevator.

But defense attorney George Buehler said that the case against his client was based solely on DNA and that the prosecution was never able to explain why someone with no record of violence would commit such a brutal crime.

He described the jury as diligent and intelligent, noting that the panel included a bank executive and a retired engineering professor. Jurors, he said, were able to look beyond the DNA and identify key gaps in the prosecution's case.

"The DNA itself just shows you that there are certain cells found at this location, but it doesn't tell you how they got there or why they got there," he said. "The DNA does not tell you a story."

Prosecutors were dealt a setback in the case last year, when a judge ruled that they could not argue that Park worked as "muscle" for a doctor who was angry at Redding's father for breaking off business negotiations with him. The district attorney's office argued then that the evidence would show that Park confronted Redding to use "scare tactics" that Park had used against others who ran afoul of Dr. Munir Uwaydah.

Buehler said that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy made the right decision to exclude the evidence. The incidents, he said, involved little more than Park asking someone to pay a judgment and did not involve violence.

"It was inflammatory and was trying to build what I call a myth of Kelly Park as the enforcer," he said.

Despite the ruling, the prosecution was still able to argue that the doctor was the key connection between Park and the victim. Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy Okun-Wiese told jurors that Uwaydah employed Park and briefly dated Redding in 2007. During that time, the doctor offered to go into business with Redding's father, an Arizona-based pharmacist. Redding, a 21-year-old aspiring actress and model, was killed March 15, 2008, five days after her father broke off negotiations, Okun-Wiese said.

The prosecutor told jurors that more than $1 million was transferred to Park from a company owned by Uwaydah.

Uwaydah has not been charged in Redding's death and has denied any involvement. Jurors did not hear that prosecutors suspect that Uwaydah fled to Lebanon when Park was arrested in 2010 and that he was paying for her defense.

Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey released a statement saying that prosecutors disagree with the verdict but respect the justice system.

"We believed in our case and the strength of our evidence," the statement said. "We fought hard and fair in the court of law to obtain justice."

Former prosecutor Alan Jackson, who presented the case to the grand jury in 2010, described the verdict as a tragedy and said he was heartsick for Redding's family.

"I can't imagine what they're going through," said Jackson, who is now a civil litigator. "Today, when Kelly Soo Park walked out of that courtroom, justice was not served."

Before the trial, the defense was dealt its own setback when the judge blocked Park's attorneys from telling jurors that Redding's boyfriend might be the killer.

Buehler argued that her boyfriend had shown a pattern of jealousy and violent outbursts with Redding, including incidents in which he put a fist through a wall, kicked doors and damaged her car. The judge ruled that the defense had produced no concrete evidence linking the boyfriend to the slaying.

Buehler said Tuesday that he and his law partner, attorney Mark Kassabian, had planned to make Redding's boyfriend a major part of their defense. Nevertheless, the prosecution, he said, was unable to answer questions the defense raised in the trial.

During closing arguments, Buehler told jurors that Park's DNA could have been transferred from items she touched at Uwaydah's home, where she had visited and the victim had briefly lived months before moving to the Santa Monica apartment on Centinela Avenue. The killer, Buehler argued, could have used a rag or towel with Park's DNA to wipe down the crime scene. That, he said, would explain why Park's genetic material was at the scene.

Buehler said the verdict ended a three-year ordeal for his client, whom he described as "very relieved."

"She's had some hard years dealing with this, the fear of it and the anxiety of it," the attorney said. "She just wants to go and rest right now."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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