LOS ANGELES (AP) — In the nearly 15 years since Sarah Key-Marer got the chilling news that her 4-year-old daughter had plunged to her death from a sea cliff, the mother has waited for the girl's father to take responsibility.
He never did, and after two previous juries deadlocked, jurors Wednesday convicted Cameron Brown of first-degree murder in the death of Lauren Sarene Key.
A shocked Key-Marer breathed heavily and began crying as the verdict was read in Los Angeles Superior Court.
"Lauren was our gift from God, the best thing that ever happened to us," Key-Marer said outside court. "We just learned to live with the pain."
Brown, a former airline baggage handler, hurled the girl to her death from a 120-foot cliff in November 2000 because he never wanted the child and was locked in a bitter dispute with her mother over child support and custody, a prosecutor said.
Two previous juries failed to reach a unanimous decision on whether Brown was guilty of murder or manslaughter, and he has spent nearly a dozen years behind bars awaiting an outcome.
Brown stared straight ahead with no sign of emotion as the verdict was read. After Key-Marer and jurors left the courtroom, Brown told the judge he was innocent.
Brown, 53, faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole when sentenced June 19 for the killing and special circumstances that he lay in wait and killed the girl for financial gain.
He told police the girl tripped and fell as she ran toward the cliff's edge at Inspiration Point in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Defense lawyer Aron Laub argued that his client was a bad dad but not a murderer and asked jurors to convict Brown of manslaughter.
"I sincerely believe that is what happened in this case," Laub said after the verdict. "I have great confidence in our jury system, but I cannot agree that this was a just verdict."
After two deadlocked juries, the latest panel took little more than a day to reach a decision.
Foreman Greg Apodaca said jurors were unanimous from their first discussions, and it was a "relatively simple decision to make" after hearing nearly six weeks of evidence and visiting the scenic bluff about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
"The expert witnesses made it pretty clear, and when we did the site visit, it was clear to us, as well, that it didn't seem likely that a 4-year-old girl would be up there of her own volition," Apodaca said.
Prosecution experts said the girl's injuries were not consistent with an accidental fall because she couldn't have run fast enough to clear part of the cliff before either striking an outcropping or hitting the beach below.
Jurors heard most of the same evidence as previous juries, but this time, Los Angeles sheriff's Detective Jeffrey Leslie bolstered proof of a financial motive by finding someone to testify that Brown said it would be "nice to get rid of Lauren" to avoid paying $1,000 a month in child support, Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum said.
"That witness made a significant difference," Hum said. "Obviously, the financial motive was a factor, but it was primarily his hatred of Sarah, Lauren's mother, that propelled this."
Hum told jurors that Brown's statements were riddled with lies and that Brown had wanted Key-Marer, a British citizen, to get an abortion and he even tried to get her deported.
As a tearful Key-Marer stood to address reporters, juror Shelia Janis said she was sorry for the pain she had endured.
"I'm sorry for (the) death of your baby, but justice has certainly been served," Janis said.