Botched Keene case reversed

The 1997 conviction of a Plumas County murder suspect defended by attorney and current Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico, has been reversed by a U.S. appeals court because of Keene’s lackluster defense.

Keene, a Chico city councilman at the time, was hired in 1996 by Reta Gail Orner, whom he’d met through church, to defend her against a charge that she had shot to death her husband Harold. Her first trial ended in a hung jury, with jurors split 7-5 for acquittal. In that trial Keene had introduced as evidence a videotape of the husband on his death bed saying his wife had not shot him and that their marriage was “perfect.”

At the second trial Plumas County District Attorney James Riechle told Keene that he had an audio-taped statement from a helicopter flight nurse who had attended the husband after the shooting. On the tape the nurse says that, during the helicopter ride, the husband implied his wife was the shooter.

Riechle made an offer to Keene that he wouldn’t use the tape in court or the nurse as a witness if Keene would agree not to use the husband’s video testimony. Without checking the content of the tape, Keene agreed. Orner was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

This week a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court said if Keene had looked into the nurse’s statement he “would have discovered that the testimony was unreliable and subject to impeachment. None of the other flight attendants who were present during the flight heard the statement, the statement was highly suspect, and the witness was of doubtful credibility.”

The judges went on to note that Riechle had decided not to have the nurse testify at the second trial even before the deal was struck with Keene.

“According to the uncontested evidence, even a minimal investigation likely would have disclosed that the prosecution was unlikely to attempt to call the witness and, even if the testimony had been presented, the new testimony would have been ineffective,” the judges said. “On the other hand, it is also virtually undisputed that the videotaped sworn testimony of the deceased constituted very powerful evidence in favor of the [accused].”

The first trial, which ended with a hung jury, was prosecuted by Plumas County Deputy District Attorney David Nelson, who is now a public defender in Glenn County.

“I remember [Nelson] threw a whole bunch of stuff into the case, some of it relevant, some of it not,” Riechle recalled this week. “And I remember he thought that videotape [of Orner’s husband] was a big deal. When I took over I didn’t want that tape used.

“The judge told us to work things out ourselves, and with Rick being such an amiable guy, we cut some sort of deal. I remember trying to use my wiles.”

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey compared the deal to a poker game in which Riechle, who had nothing, called Keene’s bluff. And Keene folded.

Ramsey also noted that the appeals court did not use Keene’s name in its published ruling, instead referring to him as “trial counsel.”

“If they really wanted to ding him,” Ramsey said, “they would have named him.”

Efforts to reach Keene were unsuccessful. He is on a family vacation overseas.

Whether Keene faces disciplinary action by the State Bar in this latest case is unclear. Orner could sue him for malpractice. Barring another appeal, it is now up to Plumas County either to retry Orner or free her.

Local attorneys said Keene, who usually practices personal-injury and worker compensation cases, was most likely out of his element in the Plumas County murder case.

Riechle was defeated after 14 years as DA when he ran for re-election in Plumas County two years ago. He is now acting as legal advisor for Andrew Mickel, the man accused of shooting to death Red Bluff police officer David Mobilio on Nov. 19, 2002.