Jurors were led into Judge Dale Reinholtsen’s courtroom Thursday for what they believed would be the continuation of the first-degree murder retrial against Richard Craig Kesser, but they took their seats in the gallery instead of the jury box.
Reinholtsen, perched on the edge of the defense table, explained to them that the case against Kesser had been settled in their absence the day before.
“(Kesser) has not entered a plea but has waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to let the judge decide the case based on court transcripts,” Reinholtsen said.
But the judge later added, “There’s no question whether he did it. The question is the level of involvement.”
That question may finally be answered after Kesser agreed Wednesday to provide a statement to the district attorney that specifies his precise role in the murder of his estranged wife, who was stabbed to death in her Fortuna home two nights before Thanksgiving in 1991.
Kesser further agreed to a polygraph test, Reinholtsen said, and if the test showed no deception and Kesser testified against his former girlfriend and alleged co-conspirator Jennifer Leahy, he would receive a bench verdict of guilt for second-degree murder, with a penalty of 15 years to life.
If deception were found, however, a bench verdict of guilt would be handed down for first-degree murder instead, which carries a sentence of 25 years to life.
One way or the other, the special allegations of murder for profit and lying in wait have been dropped, and Kesser may some day be released from custody.
In fact, Reinholtsen said, because Kesser had already served 15 years, “he would be eligible for consideration of parole at this time,” if he is charged with the lesser offense.
But the judge went on to say that Kesser’s chances of receiving parole were “slight.”
As part of the settlement, Kesser pleaded guilty to a felony charge of making terrorist threats, which does not impact his sentence but counts as a second strike offense under California’s three-strikes legislation.
“If he ever got out on parole and committed another felony,” Reinholtsen said, “he’d be looking at another 25 years to life.”
While he expressed no opinion of the settlement, Reinholtsen said, “In a good settlement, neither side’s happy.”
Jurors expressed surprise and disappointment that court proceedings ended so abruptly.
“You know this is our one-month anniversary,” juror Greg Brown joked with the judge.
Other jurors asked about the history of the case and also questioned why the settlement wasn’t reached sooner.
Juror Karen August expressed concern that Kesser’s sentence would be based on the truthfulness of his statement rather than the level of his involvement in the brutal murder.
Reinholtsen said he believed the families’ desire to move on with their lives played a role in the resolution.
“All sides wanted closure,” he said, “and I think that’s why this happened.”
Kesser, Leahy and Stephen Duane Chiara were convicted in 1992 of first-degree murder with special circumstances of 30-year-old Fortuna resident Mary Kesser and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Kesser and Leahy verdicts were overturned in September when a panel of judges ruled narrowly that former Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman rejected three Native Americans from the jury pool at least in part on the basis of their race.
Dikeman called the reversal the biggest disappointment of his career. Read