An attorney for one of two men accused of killing a family of three in Pinyon Pines contended Tuesday that prosecutors had put forth a “narrative” lacking sufficient evidence to prove his client was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“This is not narrative beyond a reasonable doubt,” John Dolan, attorney for Cristin Conrad Smith, told jurors in his closing statement. “The standard here is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Dolan spent part of his final argument replaying Smith’s interview with sheriff’s investigators less than a week after the murders of 18-year-old Becky Friedli, her 53-year-old mother, Vicki Friedli, and the latter’s boyfriend, 55-year-old Jon Hayward.
During the conversation, Smith tells the lawmen that he and his best friend, Robert Lars Pape, had nothing to do with the killings and were nowhere near the victims’ Alpine Drive residence on the night of Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006.
The then-17-year-old defendant acknowledges that he and Pape had spoken to Becky Friedli — with whom Pape had been romantically involved eight months earlier — and that she had requested Pape join her for a night hike near her home. But Smith insists they never had any intention of going because Friedli would likely “rub some boyfriend” in Pape’s face.
Smith refers several times to Friedli’s involvement with a “lot of Marines” from Twentynine Palms.
According to Dolan, his client’s demeanor and forthrightness in the interview demonstrated no culpability in the killings.
Dolan told jurors there were more unanswered questions than conclusive evidence tying Smith to the murders. He pointed specifically to detectives’ disinterest in information passed on by a fire captain who went to the victims’ residence and encountered a suspicious red pickup truck racing away from the general area.
“The prosecution ignores that because it doesn’t fit into the narrative,” Dolan said. “Their narrative is a story, not evidence that proves guilt.”
Defense closing statements are slated to conclude Wednesday, after which prosecutors will offer a rebuttal.
Pape and Smith, both 29, could each face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and special circumstance allegations of taking multiple lives.
Prosecutors focused on forensic and circumstantial evidence allegedly connecting Pape and Smith to the murders.
Fingerprint and DNA traces from Smith were found on a business card found several hundred feet behind the victims’ residence the morning after it was destroyed in a blaze ignited in an attempt to cover up the killings, Assistant District Attorney John Aki and Deputy District Attorney Brandon Smith allege.
According to testimony, Pape and Smith told investigators that Becky Friedli had reached out to Pape a day before the murders, seeking a meeting. However, Friedli’s close friend, Javier Garcia, told detectives that he was with the victim when she received two unexpected calls from Pape — and it was the defendant who arranged for them to go on a night hike near her family’s residence.
The witness testified that he remembered speaking with Friedli shortly before 7 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2006, and the young woman informed him that she had just received a call from Pape saying he was “coming up the hill” with Smith.
Hayward suffered two shotgun blasts to the chest, while Vicki Friedli was fatally wounded with a semiautomatic handgun, according to testimony. An autopsy could not determine how Becky Friedli died because of the extent of thermal damage to her body, above the waist.
The victims’ two-story residence was largely destroyed in a gasoline-fed fire.
The day after, Pape was interviewed by sheriff’s Detective Scott Michaels, who questioned the then-18-year-old as to his whereabouts and what he knew of the killings.
Pape attributed his information to Garcia, telling Michaels he’d had “no physical contact” with Friedli since their split in January of that year.
Pape went on to say, “They found three people (at the house). Two people were sexless, unrecognizable. One was found in a wheelbarrow — female, about 20 years old. The whole house caught fire.”
Michaels expressed surprise that Pape knew of the charred remains in the wheelbarrow, since the disposition of Becky Friedli’s body had not been publicly disclosed. Pape points to Garcia as the source.
Pape volunteered that Friedli had become “obsessed” with him, keeping a cabinet full of pictures and letters from their yearlong relationship that she had shared with Garcia. By that time, Pape was dating his future wife, Sara Honiker, who testified that he did not “have it in him” to commit any type of violence.
A convicted felon that the prosecution quoted at the opening of the trial for his alleged first-hand knowledge of what happened to the victims did not testify due to potential ramifications involving his own unresolved misdemeanor case pending in Indio.
Jeremy Todd Witt’s 2016 preliminary hearing testimony was instead read to jurors, including the key quote that he ascribed to a conversation he’d had with Smith three weeks after the killings, in which the defendant allegedly remarked that his and Pape’s plans had gone awry, prompting the pair to “torch the whole place” on Alpine Drive.
According to testimony, Witt did not come forward with the information for more than five years.