LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A San Fernando Valley man was convicted Monday of voluntary manslaughter for killing a 20th Century Fox distribution executive who was having an on-again, off-again affair with his estranged wife.
The nine-woman, three-man jury took less than an hour to convict John Lenzie Creech, 44, of the May 2012 beating death of Gavin Smith, a 57-year-old married father of three, in a West Hills business park near the defendant’s home. Smith’s remains were found in a shallow grave in the Angeles National Forest in the Antelope Valley about 2 1/2 years after he disappeared.
The jury acquitted Creech of the original charge of first-degree murder, and also of second-degree murder, settling on the lesser count of voluntary manslaughter. Creech insisted the killing was an act of self-defense, but the jury appeared to believe he acted in the “heat of passion.”
Sentencing was set for Sept. 19. He faces up to 11 years in prison, according to Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace.
“It was a very difficult case — with a lot of twists and turns,” Grace said outside court.
Jurors in the case actually began deliberating Friday afternoon, but one panelist failed to show up in court Monday morning. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus dismissed the male juror and replaced him with a female alternate, and the panel was ordered to start its deliberations anew.
About 30 minutes later, the jury indicated it had reached a verdict.
Creech showed no reaction as the verdict was read. Smith’s wife cried in the courtroom audience, but she and her family declined to comment on the verdict outside court. A call left with Creech’s attorney was not immediately answered.
Grace said outside court the jury appeared to have accepted a “heat of passion” argument, in which the defendant was said to have been provoked to violence by knowledge of his estranged wife’s affair with Smith.
“There was an affair and he found out about it,” Grace said of Creech, adding that the “infidelity” aspect of the case probably helped explain the jury’s decision.
“But I think it’s clear from the jury’s verdict, that they were kind of fixated on the heat of passion part of it,” Grace said.
In his closing argument last week, Grace told the jury that Smith “was executed in cold blood by this defendant, who hit him repeatedly in the face” after using a cell phone with GPS to track down his estranged wife, Chandrika Cade, and sneak up on the two in Smith’s Mercedes-Benz.
“You don’t accidentally beat someone to death,” the prosecutor said in his rebuttal argument shortly before the jury was handed the case Friday.
“You know they’re not happy with the jury verdict,” Grace said of the Smith family. “But I think they’re happy that the process is completed. And that the defendant has to take legal responsibility for the death of Gavin Smith.”
Defense attorney Irene Nunez told the panel that Creech had made “errors in judgment” by concealing Smith’s body and car after lawfully defending himself in a fight that he testified was initiated by Smith, but argued he was not guilty of first-degree murder.
Creech’s lawyer acknowledged her client is a “convicted drug seller” but said he “had to fight for his life” after the man who had “intruded” into his life and marriage approached him outside the Mercedes with a weapon following a fistfight between the two men inside the sedan.
“This was a tragic fight between two grown men, two flawed men, two imperfect men,” Nunez said. “There was no intention to kill. This was a spontaneous fight.”
Acquitting her client would be the “only just verdict,” she told the jury.
The prosecutor countered that Creech — who was taking growth hormones at the time and was an ex-con free on bail — could “kill with his bare hands” and “deliberately, viciously, intently delivered murderous blows to Gavin Smith repeatedly, which resulted in Gavin Smith’s death.”
Grace said Creech and Cade had an “unconventional marriage” in which the two “both cheated on each other,” and that it was “essentially a countdown to murder” when Creech “first uttered the threat” to Smith’s two sons in 2010 that he would kill Smith if he continued to see Cade.
Creech told the jury that he took “full accountability” for failing to call 911 after what he described as mutual combat or to seek help for Smith, who was a member of UCLA’s 1975 NCAA-winning basketball team under Coach John Wooden and had worked for 20th Century Fox for 18 years.
The defendant testified that Smith threw the first punch, choked him and tried to gouge out his eye as the two men struggled inside Smith’s car — with the prosecutor later telling jurors that the injuries to Smith and Creech were “not consistent with self-defense” and that Creech’s subsequent actions demonstrated a “stunning consciousness of guilt.”
Creech could have faced a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if he had been convicted of first-degree murder and if jurors had found true the special circumstance allegation of murder while lying in wait.
“The jury clearly decided that he will have to pay a penalty for killing Gavin Smith,” Grace said.
During the trial, Grace said Smith and Cade initially met at a rehabilitation facility for prescription drug abuse. He said Smith became addicted after years of medication for a back injury suffered when he worked as a movie stuntman earlier in life.
Their affair — which began in 2008 — broke off the following year after Smith was confronted by his own wife. But Smith and Cade began exchanging e-mail messages again in 2010, Grace said. When Smith’s wife found out, she drove with two of her sons to Creech’s house, where Creech told Smith’s two sons, “You saved your father’s life by coming here today,” according to the prosecutor.
Two years later, however, when the romance rekindled again, Creech made good on his threat to kill Smith, Grace said.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)