Killing son's alleged molester brings a conviction

August 12, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

SONORA, Calif. -- Ellie Nesler, a 40-year-old single mother who gunned down her son's alleged molester in a central California courtroom last April, has been found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors had argued for a first-degree murder conviction while Nesler's defense team had pressed for acquittal before yesterday's verdict was returned.

Nesler now faces a second phase of the trial to determine whether she was temporarily insane when she pumped five bullets into the head of her son's alleged molester, Daniel Driver, 35. What the jury decides about her state of mind at the time of the shooting will determine whether she serves up to 11 years in prison or a minimum of six months in a mental facility.

Although she was convicted, Nesler and her attorney conceded that it could have been worse.

"I'm happy and very hopeful," Nesler told reporters after the verdict. "[Voluntary manslaughter] is about all we could have gotten in this trial. The second phase is where we can get the acquittal."

Nesler's attorney, J. Tony Serra, also was pleased that she was not convicted of a more serious crime. "They did the correct thing," he said. "Thank God for a just and fair jury. We're obviously encouraged for the second phase."

W. Scott Thorpe and Jo Graves, prosecutors with the California attorney general's office, which handled the case because the local district attorney had witnessed the killing, declined to comment on the outcome.

"I won't express my opinion until the second phase of this trial is over," said a somber Ms. Graves. The second phase of the proceedings is scheduled to begin Sept. 7.

The voluntary manslaughter conviction was predicted by many observers who felt that Nesler would not be found guilty of first-degree murder because she was a mother reacting out of concern for her child. But at the same time, they felt she could not be set free since she had killed someone in open court.

That dilemma was at the heart of a wrenching case that has garnered worldwide attention, raising the specter of of Wild West vigilante justice and transforming Nesler into a reluctant emblem for people besieged by crime.

It all began Friday, April 2 at a preliminary hearing in Jamestown, Calif., where Mr. Driver was facing charges of molesting Nesler's son, then 6, and three other boys at a Christian camp here in 1988.

Then, as Mr. Driver was led into the courtroom by sheriff's deputies, he flashed a smirk at Nesler and the boy.

Nesler lunged at Mr. Driver and was held back by family members.

Shortly afterward Nesler, according to Mr. Serra, filched a palm-sized .22-caliber semiautomatic from her sister's purse, which was hanging unattended in the court hall, went back into the courtroom and emptied the chamber.

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