Nearly endless opportunities for appeals can render the courts as efficient as a Chevy Vega. Criminal defendants convicted at trial can drag their cases out for a decade by claiming, one at a time, that virtually every facet of a proceeding led to a wrongful conviction. Or they can contest one issue again and again … and again. The totality of the evidence against a defendant becomes irrelevant.
The public was reminded of this frustrating reality Friday when District Judge Sally Loehrer threw out the 2001 murder conviction of Margaret Rudin on the grounds that she received ineffective counsel, ordering a new trial for the woman dubbed the “Black Widow.” The ruling all but ensures that one of the most famous murder mysteries in Las Vegas history will stretch into its third decade — and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of additional dollars.
Real estate agent Ron Rudin vanished in 1994, leaving behind an estate worth between $10 million and $11 million. His body — he’d been shot and burned — was found near Lake Mead in 1996, and the murder weapon, his own .22-caliber handgun, was later recovered from the water. Margaret Rudin, his fifth wife, proclaimed her innocence throughout the lengthy police investigation, but fled the valley upon her indictment in April 1997. Rudin evaded authorities for more than two years despite numerous appearances on “America’s Most Wanted.” She finally was captured outside Boston in November 1999.
District Judge Joseph Bonaventure (since retired) decided that lead counsel Michael Amador needed help with the case. Attorney Tom Pitaro was appointed to the publicly funded defense table about three weeks before trial started. Two weeks into the trial, attorney John Momot volunteered his assistance.
The trial was a 10-week circus broadcast live by Court TV. Judge Bonaventure frequently clashed with Mr. Amador, whose conduct was odd enough to prompt a juror to label him “the laughingstock in the jury room” in a letter to the court. At one point in the 2001 proceedings, Rudin asked Judge Bonaventure to declare a mistrial, citing Mr. Amador’s lack of preparation. Amazingly, Mr. Amador supported the request, but it was denied by Judge Bonaventure.
Clark County prosecutors, meanwhile, laid out a convincing case against Margaret Rudin, detailing an obsession with money that gave her a motive to murder the millionaire. Jurors, who saw no signs of grief from Rudin, ultimately agreed with them.
Judge Bonaventure rejected a new defense motion for retrial — this time Mr. Amador defended his preparedness — and sentenced Rudin to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years. In 2004, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the convictions.
But on Friday, more than seven years after the sentencing, Judge Loehrer held yet another hearing on the same issues, and based on the testimony of Mr. Pitaro and Mr. Momot decided to give Rudin another bite at the same apple.
“I think it’s a joke that the taxpayers will have to fund a new trial for someone who had three attorneys,” said Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Owens, who helped prosecute Rudin.
So do we. Could Rudin have done better than Mr. Amador? Probably. But even if Mr. Pitaro and Mr. Momot had a year to prepare for trial without the burden of Mr. Amador, could they have changed the evidence prosecutors built their case on — including the devastating fact that Rudin ran and hid for more than two years rather than face justice? Could they have convinced jurors to ignore this evidence?
Yes, all defendants have indisputable rights to adequate counsel and fair proceedings. But the courts shouldn’t need seven years to determine that an attorney’s representation was so insufficient as to sway the outcome of a case — not when so many judges have spent so many days on the issue and moved on.
Moreover, now that the Las Vegas Valley will get an expensive Rudin retrial to match the second adjudication of the Ted Binion slaying, is it asking too much for District Court judges to simply get it right the first time?