08/24/10 — Attorneys share their final theories of crime during closing arguments

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Attorneys share their final theories of crime during closing arguments

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 24, 2010 2:35 PM

Several hours before a jury convicted ex-Marine Cesar Laurean of first-degree murder, Onslow County Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee stood before the 12 Wayne County residents charged with determining the defendant's guilt or innocence -- wielding the crow bar the state contended Laurean used to kill Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach; detailing the prosecution's theory about just what unfolded Dec. 14, 2007.

Laurean, he said, "lured" his subordinate to his home and into his garage, before striking her in the head with that crowbar as she looked over used baby clothes.

Closing arguments in the high-profile trial that was moved to Wayne because of pre-trial publicity began Monday morning inside Courtroom No. 1, and lasted until the lunch hour.

Lee was the first to address the jury and recapped, in some 40 minutes, the case against Laurean that took less than a week to unwrap.

His story began with the last time the victim's mother, Mary, heard her daughter's voice -- before Ms. Lauter-bach's roommate found a note outlining her intent to desert her duties as a Marine; before the frantic phone calls attempted by family members and friends every day until her remains were found; before investigators shifted their focus to the man ultimately sentenced to life in prison without parole.

"She is living now a parent's worst nightmare," Lee said. "She does not know where her child is."

His argument then took the jury to the Laurean's back yard -- to the "dark," "cold," "dirt-filled" grave Ms. Lauterbach and her unborn child were excavated from Jan. 12, 2008.

"What happened to her daughter? ... Her daughter was not killed in a foreign land," Lee said, looking back at the victim's mother. "Her daughter was found in the back yard of a fellow Marine."

The ex-Marine's motive, he continued, seemed clear to the state: Laurean wanted to move on with his career -- without a rape allegation hanging over his head; without living with the fear Ms. Lauterbach's unborn child would turn out to be his; without a reduction in rank due to adultery.

So he committed, Lee contended, the crime the evidence "proved beyond a reasonable doubt" he was guilty of.

He struck Ms. Lauterbach with the crowbar -- a single, "skull crushing" blow that fractured her skull and left her, according to testimony from the man who performed the autopsy, with only a few moments of life left in her -- before attempting to "cover up" the crime scene, Lee argued.

And then, he purchased the tools necessary to construct a fire pit in his back yard -- and even asked a fellow Marine how to build one -- before digging the hole, burying the victim and burning her body.

Finally, before fleeing to Mexico, Laurean attempted to create the "illusion" his victim was still alive -- driving her car around Jacksonville and parking it in various locations, including a bus station; using her ATM card; telling a co-worker on Camp Lejeune Ms. Lauterbach had sent him flowers a week-and-a-half after the state said she was killed.

"It was like a facade," Lee said. "A pretend that this victim was still alive."

And then, before allowing defense attorney Dick McNeil to present his own theory about what happened Dec. 14, 2007, the assistant district attorney addressed what he believed McNeil would argue: that the defendant's wife, Christina, could have committed the crime.

"Christina did not purchase those cinder blocks at Lowe's. ... Christina did not build that fire pit. Christina did not attempt to use Maria's ATM card. Christina was not driving the victim's car around. Christina did not give the crowbar with the victim's blood on it to Dennis Ward," he said. "Christina was not the one who used a computer ... to look into what happens during a homicide investigation. ... On Jan. 11, 2008, Christina did not flee North Carolina like the defendant did. ... The killer of Maria Lauterbach is not Christina Laurean. The killer of Maria Lauterbach is the man sitting right there."

McNeil took a different approach than his counterpart.

He spoke in a soft tone -- Lee was somewhat theatrical -- and began by thanking the jurors for their service and dedication to getting the verdict right.

"You are about to embark on one of the most important journeys of your life ... and will be making decisions that will remain with you for the rest of your lives," he said.

McNeil then expressed his sympathy for the Lauterbach family, but urged the jury to consider the "other" family in the courtroom.

He apologized for seeming brash while questioning the victim's comrades about her tendency to lie and explained that he felt it necessary to address Ms. Lauterbach's credibility and mental state, as they, he said, might have lead to her untimely death.

McNeil rejected the claim that the state had met its burden of proof and said there were many things about the case that simply did not add up.

"It's a heavy and difficult burden for the state of North Carolina," he said. "And there's a lot of questions in this case that are left unanswered, even today."

He talked about the fact that his client was characterized as a "stellar" Marine -- one of the best non-commissioned officers his supervisors had ever seen.

And he then addressed the fact that a paternity test taken after Ms. Lauterbach's death proved Laurean was not the father of the child, that he was never formally charged in connection with the rape allegation the victim made against him in the spring of 2007.

"Why did she make that allegation?" McNeil asked.

More questions would follow.

"Why did she come to his house? What did she want? Why was she there?" McNeil asked after unwrapping his theory that Ms. Lauterbach showed up at the Laurean home the day prosecutors contend she was lured there and murdered.

"Who did she confront?"

And he talked more about that day, about the "unusual" behavior the victim exhibited -- withdrawing $700 from her back account; buying a bus ticket to El Paso, Texas; leaving a note for her roommate that said she was "sorry" to inform him she was deserting from the Marine Corps.

McNeil concluded his statement by telling the jurors, again, that if they had any reservations about his client's guilt or innocence, or found no premeditation, that they were compelled to turn a verdict of not guilty.

"When it comes to first-degree murder, the state has limited your options," he said.

But the final address of the day would instruct the jury otherwise.

His voice, at times, seemingly breaking, lead prosecutor Dewey Hudson focused on Ms. Lauterbach -- on the pain her family must be feeling; on the fact that she was not present in the courtroom to tell the jury just what happened Dec. 14, 2007.

"Maria Lauterbach would love to tell you what happened on Dec. 14, 2007, but unfortunately she can't, because Cesar Laurean took this crowbar and smashed her head in, killing her and her unborn baby," he said. "The baby would be 2 years old. (Ms. Lauterbach) would love to be here with her family, but she can't."

Hudson then told the jury what he thought about Laurean -- what testimony about his exemplary record failed to detail.

"Great Marine? Maybe one day," he said. "On Jan. 11, 2008, was he a great Marine when he deserted his country at a time of war? He abandoned his family, he deserted his wife, his child, his Marine Corps, his country."

And he did all those things, Hudson argued, because he knew investigators would eventually put "the jigsaw puzzle" together and finger him for slaying his pregnant comrade.

"What happened on Jan. 11, 2008, to make him desert his country and hide like a rat?" the prosecutor asked.

And what prompted him to make the decision to tell his wife, 'Honey, I love you a lot, but I want you to explain the woman's body in our yard.'"

Hudson told the jury Ms. Lauterbach believed, when she bought a bus ticket the day the state claimed she died, Laurean would eventually meet her in Mexico -- that "they would be together."

"She believed he would go to Mexico to be with her," he said.

But Laurean, he continued, would not end up in Mexico until several months after the victim's charred remains were found buried in his back yard.

And that fact, Hudson said, indicates his guilt.

"Why would he flee?" he asked. "Why would he abandon his wife and child?"

Hudson wrapped up his statement by, again, reminding the jury that Ms. Lauterbach was not able to attend the proceedings.

"Maria would love to be here to tell you what happened that day," he said, holding up a photo taken during the autopsy performed on the remains of the victim and her unborn child. "But she can't."