RIVERSIDE (CBS) — A former police detective killed his wife of nearly 29 years by forcibly drowning her in what a prosecutor described today as a “brutal, violent execution,” but the defendant’s attorney argued the woman’s death was a “tragic accident” and his client was merely helping his “wife wash.”
During opening statements in the retrial of Blair Christopher Hall, Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Burke Strunsky alleged the 52-year-old ex-lawman plotted and carried out the murder of Cristi Lynne Hall in the backyard hot tub of their Calimesa home.
The woman had an $800,000 life insurance policy at the time.
“You’ll be asked to determine whether the defendant is guilty of a homicide or is the victim of an unprecedented cosmic misfortune,” Strunsky told jurors. “There’s no reasonable interpretation but that he decided to kill his wife. You’ll know it in your hearts and minds.”
Strunsky alleged that around 6:30 a.m. on June 7, 2007, Hall attacked his wife as the two bathed together in their patio Jacuzzi, a ritual that became necessary as their master bathroom was being remodeled.
“The defendant overpowers her, slams her head twice into the cement edge of the hot tub, causing two deep lacerations,” the prosecutor said. “She fights back, but she’s no match for this 250-pound man. He pins her elbows and hands behind her and plunges her underwater. She lets out a desperate, primal scream, but the defendant continues his relentless assault.”
Strunsky told jurors that Hall kept the woman submerged, showing “no mercy in the quest to end her life.”
After making sure she was dead, the defendant sat back in the hot tub and pretended to be relaxed, Strunsky said, referring to a statement by the prosecution’s key witness — then-24-year-old Lindsay Kay Patterson.
The U.S. Navy communications specialist was visiting her mother, whose house abutted the Hall property in the 1200 block of Belle Road. According to Strunsky, Patterson heard the victim scream and went over to look through a hole in the 6-foot block wall separating the two homes.
Initially, Patterson saw Hall with his hand on his wife’s back and head, giving the impression that “something kinky was going on,” Strunsky said.
But after the witness turned away, she feared there was a more sinister reason for the way the neighbors were positioned, prompting her to look again, at which point she saw only the woman leaning back in the water.
Believing the woman was being drowned, Patterson called 911, telling a dispatcher, “I saw a man holding a woman’s head under water.”
In the meantime, Hall walked into his house and awoke his teenage daughter Courtney, purportedly to make sure she would be ready when the contractor arrived to work on the bathroom — but really to have an alibi during the discovery of his drowned wife, according to Strunsky.
The defendant began screaming when he returned to the spa and had his daughter help him lift her mother out of the water, according to the prosecutor.
“They perform CPR, but by that time she’s long gone,” he said.
Strunsky said an autopsy revealed “massive” petechial hemorrhaging in the victim’s eyes and mouth, cuts on her head and bruises on her arms. She also had her husband’s skin under her fingernails, according to the prosecutor, who said the evidence left no doubt about what happened to his then 46-year-old wife.
“This was a brutal, violent execution,” he said.
Defense attorney Steve Harmon told jurors the prosecution’s conclusions were wrong.
“It’s not murder; it’s a tragic accident,” Harmon said.
The attorney recalled how the Halsl had built a “good life” together since marrying in October 1978.
“With two incomes, they were well-off financially,” Harmon said.
“They had three wonderful daughters, and the girls say everything was fine in the Hall house. No fighting, yelling or unhappiness.”
According to Harmon, the drowning occurred while his client went into the house to use the bathroom and wake up Courtney. Hall did everything to attempt to revive his wife, Harmon told the jury.
“Then he’s arrested for first-degree murder. Why? You will see this case is built on two conclusions (that were) serious mistakes,” Harmon said.
According to the attorney, the prosecution’s principal witness, Patterson, did not see an actual attack, but instead witnessed Hall and his wife “help each other wash.”
In the moment or two that Patterson started to walk away from the wall, Cristi Lynne got out of the Jacuzzi to get a second cup of coffee, resulting in the witness only seeing Blair Hall relaxing in the water, Harmon said. He the victim fell, struck her head and slipped beneath the water while his client was in the house.
Harmon also disputed the prosecution’s contention that the physical evidence was conclusive. He said the defense plans to call the chief pathologist for San Bernardino County, Dr. Frank Sheridan, who will testify that an accidental drowning is more believable than an intentional one.
Hall was first tried last May, but that trial ended in a hung jury when four of the 12 jurors voted for acquittal.
Hall, who is free on $350,000 bail, faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted.
The defendant was a San Bernardino police officer for 12 years and briefly worked as a police chief in two Idaho towns, where corruption allegations led to his dismissal, according to published reports.
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