Pursuit of death penalty OK'd
December 11, 2006
Editor’s note: Content in this report may be offensive to some readers.
A district judge ruled Monday probable cause exists to pursue the death penalty in the first-degree murder trial of a former Clovis dentist.
Ninth Judicial District Judge Joe Parker made the ruling after the prosecution presented testimony Monday claiming that Laura McNaughton, 30, was held against her will and sexually assaulted before being killed last December by James Smith.
The purpose of the hearing was to determine if probable cause exists in kidnapping and criminal sexual penetration charges, which under state law allows for pursuit of the death penalty.
“He (Smith) says it was an accident. ... Dismiss those two counts and make this case what it should be, which is a simple — well, not so simple — murder case,” defense attorney Mark Earnest argued.
Parker responded, “Throughout the evening, I don’t know if they enjoyed one another’s company initially or not, but at some time it went terribly wrong,” and he allowed both counts to be used to support the death penalty assertion.
Smith, 37, is scheduled to go on trial for first-degree murder June 1.
Earnest argued McNaughton willingly went with Smith and there was not enough physical evidence to prove sexual penetration.
He also pointed out there was no DNA evidence on the victim’s body to link her to Smith.
Lead investigator Sandy Loomis of the Curry County Sheriff’s Department told the court blood had been discovered last month in Smith’s truck.
Loomis said the blood was found on the passenger window, inside the door where it seeped under the window seal, in the seat and in the carpeting.
Investigators are awaiting results from a state crime lab to confirm the blood belonged to McNaughton, Loomis said.
Loomis told the court he believes, based on the finding of additional blood, that Smith abducted her outside her home the night of Dec. 9, 2005, and beat her head against the window as she sat in the front seat of his truck.
“I believe Laura never made it into the house that night,” he said.
He testified friends and family described McNaughton’s routine when she would arrive home and said there was no evidence she did any of her normal things that night.
McNaughton’s immediate cause of death was ruled as manual strangulation, though the blunt force trauma she sustained to her head would have been enough to kill her, Dr. Ian Paul of the medical investigator’s office said when he testified.
The injuries to her throat and head were caused by a significant amount of force, he said.
Paul, who performed an autopsy on McNaughton’s body, said the wounds from the strangulation were consistent with being choked by human hands.
One area of her head showed bruising below the scalp, indicating a section of her hair was pulled with extreme force, he said.
She also had defensive wounds on her face and chin that “might have been created by her own fingernails as she was trying to pry away someone’s hands,” Paul said.
Paul said wounds in her anal region indicated an attempt was made to sodomize her, but he could not say for certain that penetration occurred.
During his testimony, Loomis detailed statements Smith made after his arrest.
According to Loomis, Smith said he waited for McNaughton outside her work and followed her home. Smith said they drank some beer and went for a drive in the country before going to his house, Loomis said.
Smith told police McNaughton died in his living room and he placed her on the back porch until morning when he undressed her and cleaned her body, according to court records.
The next morning, Smith told investigators he placed her body in the back of his pickup truck and drove into the country where he placed her in a ditch, records show.
McNaughton’s body was found by hunters Dec. 10, 2005, in a rural county ditch.
Smith went on to play golf in the afternoon, Loomis said.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler argued the violence of McNaughton’s injuries supported the theory she was held against her will.
“When he was pulling on her hair so hard that it was separating her scalp from the blood vessels, was that against her will? Testimony shows that there was a knock-down, drag-out struggle with enough blunt force trauma that that alone would have killed her but for the strangulation,” Chandler told Parker in summation.
“By Smith’s own admission, she died in his presence, and he dumped her body and went and played 18 holes of golf. It’s crystal-clear your honor.”
Earnest argued the sexual penetration should not stand if Paul could not confidently say it occurred.
He also argued McNaughton did not raise any concerns when she left a friend a message while with Smith, canceling plans for the evening.
“At 10:12 (the night before her body was found), when she was in his presence, she was not in any way alarmed or upset. What we have here is her going off voluntarily with him to have a beer,” Earnest said.