Ryan Douglas Roberts will go to prison for the murder of 13-year-old Jessica Funk-Haslam, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered Monday, bringing a measure of relief to the slain girl’s mother and ending a months-long defense effort for a new trial in the 2012 killing.
Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of the day the body of the Albert Einstein Middle School student was spotted by a woman on her morning walk across Rosemont Community Park. Jessica, stabbed and asphyxiated, was found dead March 6, 2012, in a baseball diamond’s dugout at the park. She was reported missing the night before, hours after walking away from her Rosemont-area home after an argument. Roberts will be sentenced March 18 before Superior Court Judge Gerrit Wood.
“I’m just happy that it’s finally to this point, but I won’t be able to breathe until it’s 100 percent over,” said Tara Haslam, Jessica’s mother, outside the courtroom.
Roberts’ mother, Tammy Roberts, maintained her son’s innocence: “The truth has a funny way of wanting to be heard. I believe the truth will come out on this.”
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Jurors in September convicted Roberts, 25, of Jessica’s murder in a case built largely on DNA evidence gleaned from discarded cigarette butts near the dugout that prosecutors say matched Roberts and Jessica.
Superior Court Judge Gerrit Wood ruled that the evidence was not enough to warrant a retrial.
No weapon was ever found, and investigators could not determine a motive for the slaying, but prosecutor Eric Kindall argued at trial that Roberts and the girl half his age shared cigarettes in the ballfield’s dugout before her death. Kindall, a Sacramento County deputy district attorney, repeated the theory on Monday.
“(Roberts) and Jessica Funk-Haslam were in the dugout for an extended period of time before something went terribly wrong,” Kindall said, as Roberts sat next to defense attorney Jennifer Mouzis. “Nothing that the defense presented would be likely to produce a different result at a new trial.”
But Mouzis said new evidence placed not Roberts, but a young friend of the murdered middle schooler – along with the friend’s mother and the mother’s boyfriend – in the dugout at the time Jessica was killed.
“This shouldn’t be a defense motion for a new trial. This should be a people’s motion to dismiss,” Mouzis said. “There is new evidence, and it is significant.”
The linchpin, she said, was Christopher Reed, a transient who Mouzis said knew Jessica, occasionally stayed with the family of Jessica’s friend at nearby Vince’s Motel in Rancho Cordova and who was arrested and questioned extensively by Sacramento County sheriff’s detectives about Jessica’s killing in the days after her death.
Jessica’s friend testified under grant of immunity during Roberts’ murder trial, but Reed did not receive such an offer. Reed invoked his right against self-incrimination when he was subpoenaed to testify and was released from the subpoena, according to Mouzis’ motion.
Mouzis had argued at trial that Reed and Jessica’s friend were responsible for Jessica’s death, pointing to detectives’ interviews with both several days after the killing.
Mouzis, in earlier trial motions, said sheriff’s detectives at first focused on Jessica’s friend. Witnesses had said she was with Jessica on the night she was killed. But the girl repeatedly denied seeing Jessica that night and instead implicated Reed. Detectives turned their attention to Reed, before discovering the DNA evidence that ultimately led them to arrest Roberts.
Mouzis argued that Reed had told a defense investigator after Roberts’ trial that Jessica’s friend asked him on the night of the killing to bring a blanket to the park. Reed did, where he found Jessica’s friend, the friend’s mother and the mother’s boyfriend in the dugout with the deceased girl, according to Mouzis’ defense motion. Reed then fled, hiding out until early the next morning, the motion says.
Others, including Reed’s brother and the brother’s friend initially corroborated Reed’s story in interviews with a defense investigator, but later recanted key segments of their statements before the hearing, the attorneys said.
Roberts’ bid for a new trial was further undone when prosecutors spotted inconsistencies in Reed’s and others declaration signatures, projected on a courtroom screen.
Mouzis bristled at Kindall’s accusations that the signatures were faked and said it was no surprise Reed and friends recanted their statements and varied their signatures. She called both an attempt by Reed and friends to hide that they talked to attorneys in asking Judge Wood to allow the new evidence to be heard.
“The test is if the jury had heard that, would it have changed the mind of at least one juror?” Mouzis said.
Wood denied the motion, ruling that the evidence was not enough to warrant a retrial.