“A lifetime of provocation!” Defense attorney Bradley Patton, facing the jury, throws his arms wide to indicate what he calls “the spectrum of the relationship.”
It is the first week of June 1993. The final day of the trial: The State of California vs. Charles T. De Woody in the courtroom of Judge Runston G. Maino, Vista Superior Court. DeWoody is charged with his father’s murder. His arrest nearly a year ago for attempted murder was made without benefit of incriminating evidence or witnesses — only the defendant’s confession.
Patton warms to his closing arguments, becoming more dramatic, alternately hushed and emphatic after some 15 minutes of defining legal terminology for the jury. Later he will wish he had spent more time making them understand the mechanism of “implied malice,” but possibly he sensed he was losing them in the dry jargon, the elaborate charts with categories and subheadings like “malice aforethought,” “unlawful killing,” “burden of proof,” “ordinary prudence,” “reasonable doubt.”
Patton continues, “The flower pots used to kill Mr. DeWoody, Sr., speak to us of spontaneity!”
The statement, jotted hastily in my notebook, reads as if Patton were recounting a particularly clever, if unfortunately deadly party prank.
This is not the case.
Murder trials are an occasion, outside of the theater, to enact a ritual with conventions as rigorous as a kabuki play, Good vs. Evil, each side exhaustively persuading the silent chorus that they champion the first, and their contenders its opposite. In the middle is the defendant: the embodiment of a morally ambiguous soup, a composite of elusive truth or equally shadowed dissemblance, a metaphoric stew signifying the DMZ of passionate human intercourse.
Charles Tremaine “Toby” DeWoody, the metaphoric stew: an emaciated man, looking at any given time somehow older or younger than his 52 years, blinks rapidly into the overhead fluorescent lights. He clutches his arms together, shivering in his burgundy V-necked sweater and button-down, pin-striped shirt, though it is possibly 70 degrees in the courtroom. He has close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, sunken cheeks, collapsed posture — the air of a sedated disaster victim about him. He looks for all the world like an abused Chihuahua or what he is exactly — the principal, though possibly muzzled player in a modern-day Greek tragedy.
Many of Patton’s remarks to the jury about the long-term abuse Toby suffered at the hands of his “controlling, abusive, martinet” father are punctuated with gestures to the defendant as if to say, “Don’t take my word for it, just look at this guy.” It is not unthinkable that North County superstar defense lawyer Patton built his case around Toby DeWoody’s fragile presence.
Charles T. DeWoody has been held on $1 million since his arrest at Lindbergh Field in September of last year and his subsequent confession to the killing of his father, Charles O. DeWoody. The son beat the older man into a coma with ceramic pots containing orchids – “at least two of them,” the discovery evidence states and Deputy District Attorney James Valliant underscores at every opportunity. Valliant also misses few chances to state that the victim’s mouth and nose were “stuffed full of potting soil.” Enough, according to paramedics, to make up a ball the size of “a standard orange in volume of dirt.”
The senior DeWoody was a retired attorney. He and his wife lived on one of the snaking high roads of Rancho Santa Fe in a multimillion-dollar home where he spent his days lifting weights at poolside and gardening. He cultivated, among other things, the difficult to grow, fleshy, tropical orchids whose containers became the instruments of his sudden death. Whether DeWoody Sr. had long ago planted the seeds of his own violent demise was the pivotal issue in the State of California vs. DeWoody Jr.
The ten-day trial was as much as anything else, an examination and attempted indictment of the victim’s life. The questioning kept returning to the issue of “lifelong abuse” — or “perceived abuse.” The senior DeWoody had “humiliated Toby consistently,” “beat him with a leather moccasin,” and had years ago “stomped a litter of the DeWoody children’s rabbits to death while wearing a pair of work boots.”
Early on, Patton entered damning evidence of the victim’s lifetime of provocation. Expert psychiatric testimony made much of the fact that the defendant’s sister, Penny DeWoody Beargie, committed suicide (an overdose of medication) in 1985 after her father arranged the “kidnapping” (prosecution’s term: “relocation”) of her children from her Virginia home.
Following the kidnapping/relocation, the senior DeWoody alleged the children had suffered abuse at the hands of their mother, his daughter. Testimony from a psychiatrist spoke of a “chain of abuse” in the family.
STATEMENT OF THE FACTS (Pages 2 through 5 of the Trial Record): “On August 31, 1992, at 9:42 a.m. Sheriff’s Communication Center received an ‘open line’ 911 call from the DeWoody’s Rancho Santa Fe home: no response could be heard to the operator’s questions. Male voices could be heard arguing, though no words could be distinguished. After a thump or crash sound the voices ceased. Several seconds later the call terminated from the source of origin.
“Sheriff’s deputies responded to the DeWoody home. The elder DeWoody was found lying, face to the side, on the ground of the side yard. Pieces of broken clay flower pots were about him. A flower pot shard was still embedded in his head.
“Severe lacerations were all over his head. Blood had already coagulated over many of them. The victim could be heard moaning, and blood was coming from his mouth. He was unconscious.
“Paramedics arrived and began rendering first aid. They took turns removing dirt from the victim’s mouth and throat… The victim was life-flighted to Scripps La Jolla. There, more dirt was removed from the airway. Extensive emergency surgery commenced.
“Mr. DeWoody never regained consciousness and died on September 17. The autopsy revealed more dirt, pebbles and twigs in the lungs. The skull had been badly fractured. The medical examiner concluded that death was the result of severe head trauma and suffocation. Several ‘defensive’-type wounds were noted on his arms.