4-year-old daughter’s death plunge off Rancho PV cliff: Dad’s murder conviction stands

File photo of the Rancho Palos Verdes coastline by John Schreiber.

A state appeals court panel Wednesday upheld a former airport baggage handler’s first-degree murder conviction for his 4-year-old daughter’s plunge over a 120-foot cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes nearly 17 years ago.

The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal turned down the defense’s contention that Cameron John Brown’s May 2015 conviction for the Nov. 8, 2000, death of his daughter, Lauren Sarene Key, should be reversed.

“There was significant evidence against Brown, notably his own statements expressing his desire to ‘get rid of’ Lauren, his decision to take Lauren to a dangerous outdoor area, and his callous and indifferent attitude after Lauren’s death,” the panel found in its 94-page ruling.

The justices rejected the defense’s contention that his third trial for first-degree murder — in which he was convicted — was barred by the prohibition against double-jeopardy given the jury’s split in his second trial in 2009 in which six jurors in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom voted in favor of convicting Brown of second-degree murder, while the other six favored involuntary manslaughter.

The first jury to hear the case against him deadlocked August 2006 in a Torrance courtroom.

Of Brown’s second trial, the panel wrote, “The court had already conducted a thorough inquiry of the entire jury in which all of the jurors agreed they had not reached a unanimous decision on any crime at issue, including first-degree murder.”

“The foreperson’s lone statement suggesting the jury was `not deadlocked’ on first-degree murder did not mandate that the court engage in additional inquiry … Further, the foreperson’s statement made after the court declared a mistrial contradicted the statements of the entire jury made only moments before,” the justices found.

The appellate court panel also rejected the defense’s contention that there were also other errors in his case, including jurors in his third trial being allowed to visit Inspiration Point, the cliff from which the girl plunged to her death.

“The evidence adduced at trial was significantly linked to the physical landscape at and around Inspiration Point, such as the difficulty of the hike to Inspiration Point, the location and relative positioning of Brown and Lauren when they were on top of the cliff, and the paths Brown took to get help and to retrieve Lauren’s body,” the justices noted. “Although these issues were the subject of testimony and were illustrated by various visual aids, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding a visit to the scene would further aid the jury.”

Along with convicting Brown of first-degree murder, jurors in his last trial found true the special circumstance allegations of murder for financial gain and murder while lying in wait.

Brown has insisted that the girl accidentally tumbled down the cliff at Inspiration Point.

Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum — who was the prosecutor on each of Brown’s three trials — told jurors in the last trial that the little girl was picked up and thrown off the isolated tip of Inspiration Point as a result of Brown’s hatred for the girl’s mother and a “desire for revenge.”

The prosecutor told jurors in 2015 that Brown showed no interest in meeting his daughter until she was over 3 years old, and that Brown was advised that he needed to request visitation if he wanted a reduction in the monthly child support payments of about $1,000 he had been ordered to pay.

Brown had unsuccessfully tried to convince the girl’s mother to get an abortion when he first learned she was pregnant and subsequently tried to have her deported, the prosecutor said.

Hum questioned Brown’s statement to investigators that he “could barely keep up with this 4-year-old little girl” on their walk to Inspiration Point, which is unfenced and has steep 120-foot-high cliffs.

Defense attorney Aron Laub, who represented Brown in his third trial, told jurors that two tragedies unfolded — “the death of a 4-year-old” and “the prosecution of Cameron Brown” — and denied that his client had any hatred for the girl’s mother.

“This father, who had this duty to hold her hand or hold her … didn’t do it,” the defense lawyer said, but he added that the child fell to her death in a tragic accident.

After the verdict, the jury’s foreman, Greg Apodaca, said he believed the jury had “delivered justice.”

“It didn’t seem likely that a 4-year-old girl would be up there of her own volition,” he said, referring to a trip the jurors made to the site of the cliff.

At Brown’s sentencing, the girl’s mother, Sarah Key-Marer, said, “It didn’t need to end this way for her or for us. It would have been so simple just to make changes.”

She said her heart had been “broken” by losing her daughter, whom she said “surely would have made a difference in this world.”

The girl’s mother said she had tried to believe that Brown’s account of what had happened that day was true.

“It took this time for me to understand the truth … I have some peace knowing that I’m free from the years of court proceedings,” she said, adding that she wished that Brown would “take responsibility for his actions.”

Outside court after Brown was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in September 2015, his wife, Patricia, handed out copies of a letter from her husband to the head of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s newly formed Conviction Review Unit, in which the defendant wrote that he is “factually innocent” and was “wrongfully convicted.”

She told reporters then, “I still don’t believe this is the final outcome by any means … There’s no way that this is final.”

–City News Service