Murder cases usually aren’t ready for court for several years.
Police gather tattered yellow crime tape. Murder victims are eulogized. And the long wait begins.
Murder mysteries typically aren’t resolved in a hurry; trials for some of the Valley’s notorious killers — Cary Stayner, Dana Ewell, Josefina Saldana — didn’t begin until more than two years after their arrests.
But the man accused of Fresno’s worst mass killing could stand trial sooner than six months after police found nine of his children dead, stacked in a back bedroom of his home.
On March 12, Marcus Wesson was handcuffed in front of his modest central Fresno home. He later was charged with murdering the victims, who ranged in age from 1 to 25.
On Aug. 31, jury selection is scheduled to begin in Fresno County Superior Court. The trial would have started Monday but Wesson’s lawyers recently won a two-month delay despite his protests. Wesson pleaded with a judge to ignore his lawyers’ request. Part of his strategy, he said, was to have a timely trial.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are hustling to prepare for a summer trial.
The District Attorney’s Office asked federal crime labs to move evidence in the case to the front of the line. The rush of a fast-approaching court date could be one of prosecutor Lisa Gamoian’s greatest challenges, says Vincent Bugliosi, whose prosecution of Charles Manson three decades ago made him one of the country’s most recognized lawyers.
“She needs all the time she can get,” says Bugliosi, a former Los Angeles prosecutor who won the first-degree murder convictions of Manson and three of his female followers. “There’s only three places she should be: Home, driving to and from work and in court.
“But she can do it.”
Defense attorneys emphasize favorable evidence that surfaced last month when tests showed no gunshot residue was found on Wesson. This supports the defense theory, says public defender Peter Jones, that Wesson’s 25-year-old daughter, also one of the nine victims, committed the murders.
But this, too, can be overcome by prosecutors, Bugliosi says, by showing Wesson helped in the murders or is a father so domineering he could order one child to kill her siblings and herself.
The time crunch and a case made even more complex by the addition of 14 sex charges is taking a toll on Wesson’s lawyers.
Jones complained that the District Attorney’s Office was busy adding counts of sexual abuse, including rape and continued molestation, when prosecutors should have been turning over evidence.
Jones has called some hearings a sham because he was given little time to prepare. He also has shown frustration with Wesson’s reluctance to postpone the trial.
Wesson’s attorneys get delay
Few suspects get their day in court as fast as Wesson.
His attorneys argue there hasn’t been enough time to analyze the thousands of pages of evidence, audiotapes, videotapes and computer discs compiled during the police investigation. And they also must find time to conduct their own investigation.
Jones, however, only requested a 10-week delay in the trial. He didn’t ask for a longer postponement because he knew Wesson was in a hurry to get started.
Jones has hinted he will ask for the trial to be moved out of Fresno County, but barring a change of venue, 12 local jurors could sit in judgment of Wesson this summer.
It would be near-record time for Fresno County’s criminal justice system. Murder cases usually take years to get to trial.
Dana Ewell was arrested in March 1995, but it wasn’t until December 1997 that jurors were chosen. They found him guilty of arranging the killings of his parents and sister.
Josefina Saldana was arrested in September 1998 on suspicion of murdering Margarita Flores. The jury that found her guilty of killing Flores and her unborn child was picked in January 2001.
The jury that found Cary Stayner guilty of murdering three tourists in Yosemite National Park was seated in July 2002, almost three years after his arrest.
However, Wesson’s murder case wouldn’t be the first in Fresno County to reach trial in less than a year.
Keith Zon Doolin — who did not waive his right to a speedy trial, saying he was eager to prove he was not guilty — was tried within five months of his arrest in October 1995. Jurors deliberated four hours before convicting him of killing two women and shooting four others. Doolin was sentenced to death.
Defendants have a constitutional right to speedy trials. If they don’t agree to a delay, jury selection must start within 60 days of their arraignment. If statutory limits were used in Wesson’s case, jury selection would begin Monday.
But Wesson’s attorneys might have been ineffective and unprepared for a June trial, Judge R.L. Putnam ruled last month when he granted Jones’ request for a delay. Wesson’s right to effective counsel outweighed his right to a timely trial.
Wesson did not sit silent while his trial was pushed back.
“I do strenuously object because I find it difficult to believe that a defendant would have to fight so hard to defend his constitutional rights in the United States,” he told Putnam, adding, “What I basically wanted to say was that my strategy was to keep with my constitutional rights.”
Rushing to trial debated
Lawyers are divided about which side would benefit if Wesson is tried this year.
Michael Idiart, a Fresno defense attorney and former prosecutor, says a 2004 trial could play to Wesson’s advantage if the District Attorney’s Office doesn’t have time to test and examine all its evidence.
“I’ve seen instances where the best strategy was to jam the DA. Maybe that’s the case here,” Idiart says. “What if there are some tests that can’t be completed in that period of time, whether it’s DNA or something else? Then the DA wouldn’t have the benefit of that.”
Idiart, however, concedes rushing to trial is “almost like a toss of the dice. You don’t know if it’s helpful to you until you’re there.”
Prosecutors likely would be better prepared for a trial that begins this summer, says Justin Brooks, a defense attorney and professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego.
“The prosecution usually has more information than the defense from day one,” says Brooks, who believes Wesson could be hurt by an early start. “It would help the prosecution because they have better access to information and tests.”
In preparing her case, prosecutor Gamoian is working seven days a week, says her boss, District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, who calls Gamoian organized and experienced.
Gamoian won’t talk about the case to reporters.
To prepare for the Manson trial, Bugliosi says, he worked 100 hours a week.
Soon after he was assigned to the case on Nov. 18, 1969, Bugliosi worried Manson might demand an immediate trial.
“If Manson insisted on this, we were in deep trouble,” Bugliosi wrote in his book, “Helter Skelter.”
Thirty-four years later, Bugliosi talks from his Southern California home about a gamble that bought him the time he needed.
“Fortunately, we bluffed Manson that we were ready to go to trial, hoping that he would ask for a continuance, which he did and we needed it,” Bugliosi says.
The trial began June 15, 1970, and ended seven months later when a jury affirmed Bugliosi’s belief that Manson exerted complete control over his followers and orchestrated the killings of actress Sharon Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary LaBianca.
Although Bugliosi couldn’t show that Manson stabbed or shot any of the victims, or prove that he was even at the crime scenes, jurors found him guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and seven counts of first-degree murder.
At court hearings and in written arguments, Gamoian paints Wesson as a man who similarly dominated his family.
He preached a bizarre combination of Bible lessons and murder-suicide pacts, say investigators who interviewed his relatives.
His designs for murder and suicide were formed long before nine of his children were shot to death, Gamoian has said in court. Wesson meant for his plan to be triggered if police or employees with Child Protective Services — people he called devils — attempted to break up his family, she has argued.
Wesson’s children lived in an insular world he filled with incest and sexual abuse, according to Gamoian.
Young female relatives told investigators he claimed to be Christ, their lord and master. Twice a day he delivered Bible lessons to his home-schooled children, according to court testimony. Wesson molested and raped his daughters and other female relatives, impregnating some of them. And in 1995 he first revealed to them his plans for murder and suicide, court documents allege.
His 20-year-old daughter, Gypsy Wesson, told investigators that female family members were instructed to kill the young children — products of incest he called God’s children — and then shoot themselves if social workers or officers threatened their way of life, according to police testimony.
Officers were called to Wesson’s home the afternoon of March 12 for what they believed was a child custody dispute.
Ruby Wesson had gone to the home to retrieve her 7-year-old daughter, Aviv. Sofina Solorio was there for her 7-year-old son, Jonathan. Both children were fathered by Marcus Wesson, records show.
Ruby Wesson, 26, and Solorio, 28, are Wesson’s nieces. They lived in his home through childhood and heard his preachings but later moved away.
Family members told police Wesson admired David Koresh, the man who had multiple wives and commanded a sect of more than 100 people called the Branch Davidians. On April 19, 1993 their standoff with federal agents ended in a fiery explosion and mass suicide in which 80 Branch Davidians were killed in a Waco, Texas compound.
On the day Wesson’s nieces went to his home for their children, a man who said he was a nephew warned police that Wesson “was just like the guy in Waco who had multiple wives.” He said Wesson carried a .22-caliber handgun and would sooner kill the children than hand them over.
When Wesson left his home’s front doorway and retreated to a back bedroom, Ruby Wesson and Sofina Solorio became hysterical.
Marcus Wesson stayed inside for 80 minutes. He emerged with blood on his shirt. Wesson looked at an officer and said, “I need to talk to you. Come here, I have something to tell you.”
Police then discovered a scene more gruesome than any seen in Fresno. In a bedroom, nine of his children were piled together. Each was shot in the eye. Blood pooled on the floor.
Initially, authorities could not tell how many victims were in the room because their bodies were so intertwined. The murder count grew from seven to eight to nine.
The defense strategy is clear: It was Wesson’s 25-year-old daughter, Sebhrenah, who fired the fatal shots. She shot each of the victims before killing herself, says Jones, who has explained the theory before a judge and in court papers.
Jones has been quick to point out that Wesson did not have gunshot residue on his hands when he was arrested. Gunshot residue tests for Sebhrenah Wesson have not been made public, but Jones says there is evidence she was the last to die. Sebhrenah Wesson was found on top of the stacked bodies.
A gun and knife were found under her body, according to police testimony. “Doubtless showing that she fell on them after she killed herself,” defense attorneys wrote.
Shortly before Sebhrenah closed the door to the back bedroom, witnesses told police, she reached into a leather bag that may have contained Marcus Wesson’s gun.
Eight of the victims were shot in the right eye. Only Sebhrenah Wesson’s son, 1-year-old Marshey, was shot in the left eye. And Sebhrenah Wesson’s fatal wound indicates she committed suicide, according to Marcus Wesson’s lawyers, who wrote:
“Although Wesson is now charged with these murders, the evidence also showed that in fact they were eight murders committed by his daughter Sebhrenah, who then committed suicide.”
Although Wesson is charged with murdering each of the victims, Bugliosi says prosecutors don’t have to show he fired the fatal bullets to win convictions that could put him on death row.
Even if Wesson only gave moral support, or helped to plan the shootings, he could be found guilty.
Bugliosi points to two pieces of the law that make this possible: Conspiracy, and aiding and abetting. Both, he says, are viable prosecution strategies.
If Wesson told someone else to kill, “then you have conspiracy,” Bugliosi says. “If he is, at a minimum, a member of a conspiracy to commit murder, then he does not have to participate.”
If Gamoian can prove Wesson ordered relatives to kill the children should authorities ever attempt to break up his family, “you not only have the conspirator,” Bugliosi says, “but the architect of the crime.”
Bugliosi used the conspiracy rule to help prove Manson orchestrated one of the most sensational mass murders in history.
Because Wesson was arrested at the murder scene, moments before the victims were found, Bugliosi says prosecutors might also use aiding and abetting as part of their strategy.
Wesson’s daughters whispered in his ear during the commotion, police testified. During his arrest, Wesson told officers he had a knife. The knife was missing from a sheath he wore on his leg and later was found under the body of Sebhrenah Wesson, Gamoian says in court documents.
“It seems like he’s pretty connected to the murder scene,” says Bugliosi, adding that this makes the Wesson case less complicated than the Manson case.
“Because even if he isn’t participating, even if he is just giving moral support, he can be found guilty of the murders through aiding and abetting.”
Wesson will have to explain what he was doing at the house in the moments leading up to the murders, Bugliosi says.
“Well, they’re going to have to put him on the witness stand to explain,” Bugliosi says. “From a practical standpoint, the jury is looking at this guy and his children are dead and he’s there and if he didn’t do anything about it, the inference can be drawn that he lended some moral support.
“The jury is going to want to know what his involvement was and that necessitates him taking the witness stand and subjecting himself to cross-examination.”
Idiart also says Wesson must testify. He’ll need to explain away some of the evidence against him, Idiart says, and soften an image made imposing by his 5-foot-9, 300-pound frame and knee-length dreadlocks.
“My gut feeling is he probably needs to testify. I just think he probably looks worse than he is,” says Idiart, citing Police Chief Jerry Dyer’s comments in March when he called Wesson articulate.
“If he indeed is as articulate as I’ve been led to believe, then maybe it would make him appear less threatening.”
Not everyone agrees.
Putting Wesson on the stand could be too risky, says Brooks, the professor and defense attorney.
Wesson would be questioned by one of Fresno County’s top prosecutors who could ask about the sexual abuse allegations as well as the murders.
“And a lot of the time, people don’t make for good witnesses,” Brooks says. “They could be innocent but be bad witnesses, and that kills your case.”