Marcus Wesson guilty in murders of nine of his children

Associated Press/June 17, 2005
By Juliana Barbassa

Fresno – Marcus Wesson, the domineering patriarch of a clan he bred through incest, was found guilty Friday of murdering nine of his children, whose bodies were found in a bloody pile last year at the end of a police standoff.

Wesson's conviction on nine counts of first-degree murder makes him eligible for the death penalty. He also was found guilty on all 14 counts of raping and molesting seven of his underage daughters and nieces.

The jurors wrestled with the evidence for more than two weeks since deliberations began on June 2, ultimately deciding that Wesson himself pulled the trigger on at least some of this victims.

Many of Wesson's surviving family members still support him, and stifled sobs as a clerk read the verdicts. Wesson himself remained quiet and still, wearing the same short-sleeved black shirt he wore throughout the trial and looking as if he lost half the 300 pounds he carried when he was arrested.

Lawyers for both sides had no immediate comment as the courtroom emptied, and Wesson's relatives quickly disappeared from the building. Fresno County Superior Court Judge R.L. Putnam scheduled the penalty phase to begin June 22, and told the jurors he expected it to last three to five days.

Wesson's defense had largely conceded the sex charges, since DNA testing showed Wesson fathered the victims. But his lawyers had argued that Sebhrenah Wesson, 25 – the oldest to die – killed herself as well as her siblings and the one-year-old son she had with her father.

The prosecution countered that Wesson had plenty of time to shoot his children during the 80-minute standoff with police on March 12, 2004. He had closed himself in a back bedroom with the victims, keeping out the mothers whose attempt to get their children out of the home prompted the police standoff.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Lisa Gamoian argued that the jury could find Wesson guilty even if Sebhrenah Wesson did pull the trigger, since witnesses testified Wesson had repeatedly coached the children to be ready to kill each other and themselves if authorities ever threatened to break up the clan.

"In this family, he was Christ himself, the ultimate authority figure who determined life and death," Gamoian told jurors. "But for his suicide pact, for his teachings, none of this would have happened."

Ultimately, jurors convicted Wesson of all the counts, and decided that "he discharged the firearm" on at least some of the victims.

The verdicts bring closure to the worst murder case ever seen in this agricultural town in the heart of California's Central Valley. Even police were horrified by what they found when they finally entered the rundown home in east Fresno.

Officers had been summoned there on March 12, 2004, by friends of Sofina Solorio and Ruby Ortiz, two Wesson nieces who had returned to the home they had escaped from to get the children they'd been forced to leave behind.

Wesson talked with officers for about an hour at the front door, then went into the back bedroom and shut the door. Solorio and Ortiz despaired, crying and screaming and begging officers to intervene. About an hour and 20 minutes later, Wesson emerged, blood on his clothing, and turned himself in.

In the bedroom was a bloody pile of bodies that shocked even veteran officers. They pulled out the bodies of Sebhrenah Wesson, her son and brother Marshey, the teenager Elizabeth Wesson, and children ranging in age from nine to one – Aviv Wesson, Jonathan Wesson, Illabelle Wesson, Ethan Wesson, Sedona Wesson, and Jeva Wesson.

Defense attorney Ralph Torres portrayed Sebhrenah Wesson as different from her sisters and cousins – "the quiet one" in a house full of contented, talkative young women. He said she had a fascination with guns, and carried spent bullets and occasionally Swiss army knives in her purse.

"We don't know why Sebhrenah did it. We can't get into her head," Torres said during closing arguments.

Like the other victims, Sebhrenah Wesson died with a single shot to the eye – something she could have done herself with the murder weapon, a .22-caliber Ruger pistol.

No fingerprints were found on the gun, and no gunshot residue was found on the hands of Sebhrenah Wesson or her father, so jurors had little solid evidence telling them who pulled the trigger.

But there was plenty of testimony from Wesson's surviving children about how much control Wesson had over his large clan. He had preached to the family daily, weaving a dogma of polygamy and incest from his own interpretations of the Bible and Seventh Day Adventist beliefs.

He was particularly severe with the young women, who were home-schooled and had almost no contact with anyone outside the family, they testified. The women and girls had to dress modestly, and Wesson beat them if he learned they'd spoken with men, even their own brothers and cousins, even as he molested them continuously from age seven or eight. He took any money they earned, and dictated even their food.

Prosecutors pointed to the supportive testimony from some of his daughters during the trial as evidence of his complete control over the family. Daughter Kiani Wesson testified that there's nothing wrong with sexual contact between a father and daughter, and defended Wesson even though he was the only one to emerge alive from the room where the children she bore him, Jeva and Illabelle, were shot to death.

Gamoian said such testimony proves Wesson was an expert at manipulating people – and relied on those skills on the day of the murders, holding police and the despairing mothers at bay while he carried out the murder-suicide pact he had commanded his family to fulfill.

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