LOS ANGELES (AP) — A lawyer for a man convicted of murdering auto racing great Mickey Thompson and his wife urged a California appellate court panel on Tuesday to overcome distaste for defendant Michael Goodwin and reverse his case.
Defense attorney Gail Harper said there was insufficient evidence at Goodwin's trial to tie him to the killings in 1988 in suburban Los Angeles.
"Mr. Goodwin is an angry man and he's kind of a jerk," she said. "But being a jerk is not a crime."
To reverse the conviction, she told the justices: "You have to overcome distaste for Mr. Goodwin who is thoroughly distasteful."
The three-judge panel previously issued a tentative ruling indicating they were leaning toward affirming the conviction. However, they asked a number of questions on technical legal issues during the appeal hearing.
Goodwin, 69, is serving a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
He was found guilty in 2007 of killing Mickey and Trudy Thompson after a six-week trial in which prosecutors built a circumstantial case that Goodwin had hired two hit men to kill the couple in revenge for a soured business deal. They suggested Goodwin planned an escape route for the men to ride bicycles to a spot where they were picked up by an accomplice in a car.
Deputy Attorney General Louis Karlin argued that Goodwin made repeated threats against Thompson in 1988 after their business deal failed.
"There were clear threats not only to harm Mickey Thompson but to harm his wife," Karlin said, noting that others overheard a speaker phone call in which Goodwin told Thompson: "I'm going to kill you and your wife."
"Only one person had a motive," Karlin said, noting that the bankruptcy trustee who presided over the business dispute "said he'd never seen such a level of vituperation and acrimony in a case."
Thompson gained fame pursuing land-speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, driving dragsters and funny cars, and popularizing off-road competitions.
Goodwin, the creator of the popular sport of Supercross, attempted to merge his highly successful business with Thompson's stadium off-road racing enterprise in 1985. But after only three months, the partnership failed.
The men battled in court for more than three years until a judge issued an order for Goodwin to pay Thompson more than $700,000.
Evidence showed that Goodwin told others he would see Thompson dead before he paid him a dime.
Harper argued that threats are not sufficient for conviction.
"You can threaten till you're blue in the face," she said. "But if there's no connection between him and the people who did the killing, it's fatal to the case."
She argued that the killings occurred during a robbery.
But the evidence showed the killers left behind jewelry and cash.
"There's no evidence the killers were there to do anything but assassinate these people," Karlin said.
Witnesses said they saw Goodwin casing the area with binoculars days before the killings. There also were reports during the trial that Goodwin had imported hit men from the Caribbean.
Prosecutors showed that Goodwin had liquidated his assets around the time of the killings, bought a $400,000 yacht and sailed off with his then-wife to spend years in the Caribbean and elsewhere. He was arrested in 2001 when he returned to the U.S.
The mystery might have died in a cold case file if not for Thompson's sister, Collene Campbell, who spent two decades pushing for Goodwin's arrest.
Campbell, 81, sat in the courtroom gallery on Tuesday then wiped away tears outside court.
"The pain never stops," she said. "I was figuring today was 9,724 days since they died and there's never been a morning or night I'm not thinking of it and wishing things were different."
If the court affirms the conviction, "Maybe my family can finally have some peace," she said.