Marci Kitchen defense founders on shaky arguments

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

EUREKA – Marci Kitchen’s lawyers argued there was not enough evidence to warrant a jury trial in the death last July of two teenage girls, one of them her daughter.

That sole defense argument went nowhere at last week’s preliminary hearing.

The defense was foiled by highly incriminating testimony: that Kitchen had admitted her guilt to at least two people, one of them her son. She allegedly hit and killed her daughter Kiya, 14, and her daughter’s close friend Faith Tsarnas, 14, in a head-on collision on a straight stretch of Eel River Road on the outskirts of Fortuna. The girls had been skateboarding as daylight faded on July 12 on the stretch known locally as “the quarter mile.”      

Eureka criminal defense attorney Ben Okin, a former Humboldt County prosecutor, took aim at inconsistencies in the statements of Kitchen’s son, Jevin, 18, in a bid to undermine the young man’s credibility. Jevin had told the court that as he, his mother and his father were grieving together at Oakland Children’s Hospital by Kiya’s body, Marci Kitchen confessed, “I did this, I did this. I killed her. I killed them both.”

Rhonda Rex, identified as a close family friend of the Kitchens, buttressed Jevin’s testimony. She quoted his mother as telling her, “I did it, I hit the girls” when she called Rex from Oakland July 13, the morning Kiya died, according to California Highway Patrol investigator Chase Adams. He conducted a recorded interview with Rex not long after the fatal crash.

Okin failed to undercut either Jevin Kitchen or Rex, although he pinpointed discrepancies in the several statements the son gave to law enforcement in separate interviews in the months following the alleged vehicular manslaughter.

Jevin readily conceded some of the discrepancies or could not recall others. None of them made a dent in his assertion that his mother confessed her guilt to him and his father, Joseph Kitchen.

Okin taxed Jevin Kitchen on whether his father pressured him to tell police the truth and to testify against his own mother.

“Yes, he said it was the best and right thing to do,” the son quoted his father as saying.

At another point in his testimony, Jevin Kitchen said that when he was being interviewed by investigators last summer and fall, “A little bit of me was still trying to protect my mom.” But last week he said he wanted to do the right thing and “this is right,” he declared.

Co-counsel Patrik Griego of Janssen Malloy LLP probed gaps in the inquiry led by CHP investigator Adams. In a lucid and methodical cross-examination, Griego, a past winner of both the California and National Trial Lawyer of the Year Awards, challenged Adams about the scrutiny he could have brought to bear but had not.

Omitted were visibility and highway safety analyses (whether Eel River Road meets safety standards); documentation of the time the sun set and the ambient lighting conditions that prevailed; a comparative speed analysis of Kitchen’s Jeep Wrangler, with and without driver impairment; a luminosity inspection of the Jeep’s headlights and whether they had been on low or high beam; the rates at which Kiya Kitchen and Faith Tsarnas were skateboarding or walking when they were struck from behind; a determination of the girls’ relative positions in the seconds before they were hit; an estimate of how long the girls were visible to Marci Kitchen before impact and what her perception/reaction time might have been (could time and distance have enabled her to avoid the girls?); and the frequency of pedestrian and skateboarding traffic on the  road in question.

Adams said he deduced the Jeep’s high rate of speed from the absence of braking tire marks, from the 300 to 350 feet the girls’ bodies were thrown and from a long trail of vehicle fluid that ran all the way through the crime scene from the point of impact to the location at the south end of Eel River Drive where Kitchen stopped briefly, leaving a pool of the fluid. Moments later she left the scene to head home, a minute or so away at 1982 Becker Lane, Fortuna.

Adams agreed that the girls may have been in the middle of the road, weaving back and forth between the two lanes and breaching pedestrian safety rules.

Like Okin’s cross-examination, however, Griego’s did not question the veracity of the confessions attributed to Marci Kitchen by Jevin Kitchen and Rhonda Rex.         

Hence, the defense rationale to free Marci Kitchen – that the state had failed to provide enough evidence to make any of the pending vehicular manslaughter charges stick – was rejected hands-down by Superior Court Judge John T. Feeney.

With their client now headed for a jury trial, Okin and Griego’s defense burden will be exponentially heavier from the harrowing moral weight of a high-profile and brutal criminal case: an allegedly drunk mother accused of killing her own daughter and another child, leaving the scene of the accident and attempting to use her son as an accomplice in concealing her responsibility for two senseless deaths.    

After all the evidence and testimony had been heard, Feeney ruled that Deputy District Attorney Stacey Eads had met the standard required in a preliminary hearing to hold a defendant for trial. In her summation of the case, Eads argued that it was evident Kitchen had been driving at a high rate of speed, given that both girls were thrown the full length of a football field or more.

Both the CHP’s Adams and Kitchen’s son said she was highly intoxicated the night of the accident. The defendant claimed she had had only two drinks “all day.”

Eads pointed out that the suspect left the scene, made no 911 call, deserted the two girls and left them to die, never admitted to police at the scene or later that she had been behind the wheel, concocted a story that she thought she hit a deer or a pole and sought repeatedly to cover-up her involvement.

A state forensic expert told the court she traced preliminary evidence of skin and flesh on the Jeep’s front bumper and license plate.

Attempting to use her son as a pawn and a stooge in concealing who had killed his younger sister, Kitchen allegedly asked him to ram her Jeep into the family basketball hoop to account for the Jeep’s prior front end damage and smashed windshield.

She also asked him to get rid of a 7 lb. bag of marijuana waste to prevent police from finding it, according to Jevin Kitchen’s testimony.

Feeney cited provisions in the 106-page California Judges Benchguide 92 in support of his ruling that Kitchen should be held for trial.

The preliminary hearing had shown there was sufficient cause to believe Kitchen committed the crimes as charged. The facts proffered by the People “would lead a reasonable person” to assume “a strong suspicion of the defendant’s guilt,” in the words of the benchguide.

A trial date may be set as soon as May 25 at Kitchen’s arraignment on charges of vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving causing death and special allegations of hit-and-run and injuring multiple victims.

Kitchen is free on $750,000 bail, as she has been since she belatedly turned herself in September.


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