By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A 42-year-old man has been charged with murder in the 1992 Los Angeles-area fatal shooting of his wife when both were teenagers, with prosecutors accusing him of paying his drug dealer $500 to stage a street robbery and commit the killing.
Morrad Ghonim appeared in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Friday and pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have said they may seek the death penalty if Ghonim, who is held without bail, is convicted.
Ghonim, then 19, was married to Vicki Ghonim, 17, in July 1992 and they were sitting in a car with their infant son at a park in the Los Angeles suburb of La Mirada when a man later identified as Leon Martinez walked up and shot Vicki, prosecutors said.
The case went unsolved until authorities in 2009 matched to Martinez the DNA on a shirt that the fleeing shooter had discarded, prosecutors said. Martinez's DNA was on record because of his conviction in another case.
Ghonim and Martinez were both arrested in 2010, but deputy district attorney Robert Villa said he dropped the case against Ghonim because of a lack of evidence at that time. Three months later, Ghonim left the country to live on the Caribbean island of Antigua, the prosecutor said.
The criminal case against Martinez proceeded, and in 2012 he told Villa that Ghonim was involved in the slaying, Villa said.
The Ghonims were having marital problems at the time, and Morrad paid Martinez $500 to stage a robbery and kill Vicki Ghonim, Villa said. Ghonim knew Martinez because he had bought drugs from the man, he added.
"I thought it was very sad that someone would kill another person for $500," Villa said.
In March, a jury found Martinez guilty of murder with the special circumstance that it was for financial gain. He faces a sentence of life without parole, but has agreed to testify against Ghonim. Doing so would make him eligible for a reduced sentence with the possibility of parole after 28 years behind bars, Villa said.
After Martinez's conviction, prosecutors charged Ghonim with murder. Last month he was arrested by law enforcement in Antigua, where he was living with a wife, and returned to the United States, prosecutors said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Will Dunham)