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Court rejects murder case in cop's death due to time limit

August 30, 2011 |  3:07 pm

Two men who served prison sentences for the attempted murder of an Orange County sheriff's sergeant three decades ago cannot be tried for murder after the paralyzed ex-cop died of his injuries last year, a court of appeal ruled.

The murder case against Robert Duston Strong and David Michael Knick must be dropped because at the time of the shooting, a victim had have to have died within three years and a day of the crime to face a murder charge, the appeals panel ruled.

The Orange County district attorney's office filed murder charges against Strong and Knick after Sgt. Ira Essoe, whose legs were amputated as a result of the shooting, died last year.

Prosecutors argue the bullet wounds led to Essoe's death, and there is no statutory limitation on murder in California.

Prosecutors have 15 days from Monday's ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Deputy Orange County Dist. Atty. Scott Simmons said they are reviewing the decision and will decide whether to appeal in the next few days.

Knick, 54, of Yucca Valley and Strong, 55, of Riverside have been in an Orange County jail for nine months.

They were convicted of the attempted murder of Essoe in an Orange mall parking lot in 1980 when he came upon them burglarizing cars with a third man. 

The three-justice panel said the case came down to a 1997 revision to the law that now allows prosecution of a murder case no matter how long it takes the victim to die.

That law eliminated the requirement that a death come within three years and a day of the crime.

The panel ruled Knick and Strong could not be subject to a law passed after the crime. It agreed with their attorneys that the statute of limitations in place in 1980 applied.

The justices cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that found a similar change made to extend the statute for sex crimes could not be applied to older offenses.

The case precludes hundreds of Catholic priests from being tried for decades-old molestation incidents.

"The district attorney suggests the time bar was never triggered because a murder is not 'complete' until the victim dies...and therefore, even conceding the statute imposes a time limitation, it did not begin to run until Essoe died," Justice J. Aronson wrote for the panel.

In November 1980, Essoe and Deputy Greg Brown were on duty in plain clothes in an unmarked vehicle when they saw three men in the mall parking lot standing in front of the raised hood of a yellow Mustang.

A few minutes later, the deputies saw them standing next to a black Mustang with an open hood.

When Essoe and Brown confronted the men, Strong pointed a gun at Brown and demanded he put his firearm on the ground, prosecutors said. As soon as Brown placed his gun on the ground, Essoe was shot twice in the back.

Brown was able to duck for cover behind a parked car as Strong and Knick stole the deputies' firearms and fled in the unmarked patrol car.

A third man, David Vogel, 63, of Riverside, fled on foot and was not charged.

About an hour later, Knick and Strong led the CHP on a high-speed chase, during which they fired at officers and crashed the unmarked cruiser.

Jurors convicted Strong in 1981 of felony attempted murder, possession of a firearm by a felon and auto theft and two felony counts each of assault with a deadly weapon and auto burglary.

He was sentenced to 17 years and four months in state prison and served a decade.

The next month, Knick was convicted of attempted murder, auto theft, possession of a firearm by a felon and two felony counts each of assault with a deadly weapon and auto burglary.

He received 16 years and eight months in state prison and served about nine years.

The shooting left Essoe paralyzed and suffering for three decades because of serious medical complications that resulted in the amputation of both his legs, prosecutors said.

"I've been given a life sentence, and I accept that because I chose my job," Essoe told The Times in 1988. "What I can't accept, is that [one of the men] does half a sentence and walks off."

The shooting ended a law enforcement career for which he had given up a lucrative job in the computer field, Essoe told The Times.

It also deprived him of the experience of working alongside his two sons and his son-in-law, all of whom became Orange County sheriff's deputies, and his only daughter, who by 1998 was a deputy trainee.

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-- Richard Winton

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