A brutal killer who battered two young girls to death in a fit of rage -- or an innocent man on trial for murder, based on inconsistent testimony, shoddy work by law enforcement and insufficient evidence?
Those are the two theories facing six men and six women who will decide the fate of Robert Thompson, on trial for allegedly killing 12-year-old Jodi Ragsdale and 15-year-old Sheila Carter in 1986.
Attorneys presented their closing arguments in the case Monday, leaving jurors with the job of deciding whether 42-year-old Thompson is the man who bludgeoned Carter and Ragsdale to death with a car jack.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Moranda painted Thompson as a frequent methamphetamine user who killed Carter and Ragsdale during "a month of rage." "With your verdict of guilty, you can set the truth straight after 21 years," Moranda said.
In contrast, Defense Attorney Randy Thomas said none of the evidence in the case pointed to his client -- arguing that investigators could not even provide consistent testimony about the alleged murder weapon. "I'm not telling you he's a good guy by any stretch of the imagination. I wouldn't want to live next door to him. But I can tell you this -- he didn't kill those two girls," Thomas insisted.
Moranda launched his arguments by focusing on the weapon: a car jack found in a 1965 Mercury Comet that allegedly belonged to Thompson -- and contained blood with Carter's DNA on it. Moranda also said investigators found another clue in the Comet's trunk -- a base to another car jack discovered in a red 1978 Chevy Malibu, which Thompson had borrowed from a friend. Thompson was allegedly driving that car when he saw Carter and Ragsdale in the parking lot of Bellevue Bowl on the day they were killed.
Someone intentionally switched the car jacks, Moranda said, arguing that the weapon originally came from the Malibu that Thompson was driving on Dec. 13, 1986. Moranda referred to the car jack as a "2,000-pound gorilla" that cannot be explained by the defense. "Who drove both of those cars on Dec. 13, 1986? Only one person I have heard about -- and that's the defendant Bobby Thompson," Moranda said.
Moranda, who said he did not know the motive for the killings, also praised Thompson's ex-girlfriend Becky Tilton. Tilton claims she saw Thompson come through a bedroom window with blood on his hands, face and clothes the day of the killings.
Moranda added that Tilton's testimony was corroborated by other witnesses. "She didn't want to be here, ladies and gentlemen, but she did so, and she's courageous for doing so," Moranda said.
Moranda also referred to testimony of a woman Thompson was convicted of kidnapping less than two weeks after the girls' deaths. Thompson allegedly admitted to the woman during the kidnapping that he had killed two girls.
He crowned his arguments by holding two large portraits of Ragsdale and Carter, both smiling, taken "before the defendant took a jack and bashed their heads in. Justice delayed should not be justice denied," Moranda asserted.
Thomas unfolded his defense by pointing out that there's no DNA evidence from Thompson anywhere on the car jack -- contending that prosecutors have failed to produce any scientific evidence that directly implicates his client. "There isn't any blood, any DNA, any fingerprints -- nothing from Mr. Thompson in this case," Thomas said.
He also referred to earlier witness testimony that indicated Department of Justice investigators, who raided the mobile home where Thompson was living, failed to find even "a speck" of blood evidence, despite Tilton's testimony. "This case has to be proven upon its facts," Thomas concluded. "There's is no way on the face of this Earth that you can have an abiding conviction that Mr. Thompson committed this crime."
Thompson's attorney also attacked several steps in the investigation into the killings, paying special attention to how law enforcement witnesses provided varying accounts of how the Comet was impounded.
Sgt. James Court of the Atwater Police Department testified that he found the car jack in the Comet's trunk and that the car was impounded after conducting a search warrant on the home of Thompson's half-brother in January 1987. Former Merced County Sheriff's Detective Hector Garibay also testified that he impounded the car when investigators were searching for a pair of shoes.
"The chain of custody is a fundamental concept, not just in 'Cold Case' (or) 'CSI' -- in real life," Thomas said. "You have to show where an item is. Particularly a murder weapon, my goodness. ... That murder weapon disappeared for who knows how long? And where did it go?"
Thomas said investigators have also given conflicting testimony about the weapon -- some describing it as partially covered in mud, others saying it appeared clean. Three separate investigators also provided varied accounts about the blood pattern on the car jack -- one calling it a spatter, while another said there were only a few drops.
The defense also revisited its theory that Greg Myers, a witness who testified during a preliminary hearing, committed the crime.
Myers, who is said to have had briefly dated Carter, was reportedly one of the last people to see her alive at a 7-Eleven, but has never been considered a suspect in the case by law enforcement and has denied any connection to the killings. He remains in jail, however, for threatening a witness in the case.
Thomas criticized investigators for not testing a beer can and a single 7-Eleven cup found in the same area as the bodies of the girls. "Greg Myers had possible motive, opportunity and there is some evidence he was at the scene. But they didn't fingerprint that," Thomas argued.
Moranda countered that the cup and beer can found near the crime scene appeared to be old. He called the defense's allegations of Myers' involvement a "red herring" to divert the jury's attention from the real issues of the case. He called Lucile Mejia, a woman who testified that Myers admitted killing the girls, "mentally ill." "(She's) probably the most incredible witness that ever took the stand in this county," Moranda said.
Several of Thompson's family members and supporters sat on the left side of the courtroom during Monday's proceeding, while the victims' family members sat on the other side of the aisle.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.