A California appeals court dealt a setback to convicted murderer Jeffrey Alsborg in his quest for a new trial regarding his culpability in the 1998 death of his lover, Alexander Campbell. Ruling unanimously in an unpublished opinion announced on January 20, the 2nd District Court of Appeal found no error in Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Bob Bowers’ rejection of Alsborg’s request that new medical experts be appointed to assist his court-appointed lawyer in preparing a new trial motion.
The court had previously rejected a direct appeal of Alsborg’s conviction, finding there was sufficient evidence at trial to sustain his conviction.
The court of appeals opinion provides the basic facts of the case as well as Alsborg’s unsuccessful efforts to overturn his conviction.
Alsborg was 34 when he became romantically involved with Campbell in 1997. Campbell, a 67-year-old widower who was a retired mortgage banker, bought the condo adjacent to Alsborg’s West Hollywood digs, and the men knocked down a wall to combine their apartments. Campbell also soon paid off some of Alsborg’s bills, gave him a credit card, named him a beneficiary under a new will that cut out Campbell’s stepsons, and designated Alsborg as a beneficiary on an IRA account and on brokerage accounts.
But everything was not rosy chez Alsborg-Campbell. The older man took two vacation trips to France during 1998, leaving Alsborg stewing back at home in WeHo, according to a neighbor’s testimony. Just days after Campbell returned from the second trip, he was found dead in his bed on the morning of October 9.
Alsborg told various stories to different people about what had happened, eventually settling on a story involving drinking, a fall by Campbell, and rough sex during the night, after which the older man, who had a heart condition, appeared to drop off to sleep. Alsborg claims he woke up surprised to find Campbell’s body cold and still.
Despite the shock of losing his partner so suddenly, Alsborg had no problem summoning the strength to make several expensive purchases using Campbell’s credit cards and to take trips to Laguna Beach, Palm Springs, and Key West. When the medical examiner determined that Campbell was strangled, Alsborg was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Subsequent to Campbell’s death, Alsborg rented the couple’s condo to a tenant who found some letters in a file cabinet that turned out to be the accused man’s notes of what had happened the night of October 8. The notes made no mention of rough sex, but instead detailed an earlier version of Alsborg’s story in which he contended Campbell’s death was a delayed reaction to falling and then being dragged into bed by his concerned partner.
Another letter headed “What They Will Say Against Me” presciently forecast the key points that would become the heart of the prosecution’s case: “Kept man, improper relationship, age spread, two times my age, older man... Alex pays my bills, Alex left me money... Jeff does not work for a living, Jeff is a hooker, Jeff charged up credit cards of deceased, Jeff was last to see Alex alive and may have hit head while dragging him to bed. And all so very wrong.”
Alsborg’s attorney consulted several medical professionals in search of expert testimony that would support his client’s rough sex version of Campbell’s death. In the end, the attorney decided to rely instead on the cross-examination of the medical examiner, who, the attorney learned, would testify that the physical evidence was consistent with various explanations for Campbell’s death, including Alsborg’s account.
The jury, however, was apparently more swayed by the factors specified in Alsborg’s “What They Will Say Against Me” letter, since it convicted him of second-degree murder. The verdict suggests that the jury did not believe that Alsborg necessarily had a plan to murder Campbell, but perhaps seized upon the situation that night to end Campbell’s life in a manner that might be viewed as accidental. The jury may also have been persuaded by evidence that Alsborg stood to inherit $400,000 from Campbell’s estate.
Immediately after his conviction, Alsborg wrote to the judge, claiming he had received ineffective representation from his lawyer, focusing mainly on the decision not to present any expert medical witnesses on his client’s behalf. Alsborg asked the court to appoint a new defense attorney who could prepare a motion for a new trial. The judge refused this request, and Alsborg appealed his conviction as well as the judge’s refusal to appoint new counsel.
The court of appeals rejected Alsborg’s direct appeal of his conviction in November 2004, finding that the circumstantial evidence presented was sufficient to support the trial verdict. But the court of appeals agreed with Alsborg that he was entitled to new counsel to prepare a motion for a new trial, and a lawyer from the public defender’s office was appointed for this purpose.
The new lawyer applied to the trial court for permission to retain new medical experts, but that was rejected, based on the judge’s reading of constitutional precedents under which a determination first had to be made whether Alsborg received ineffective representation at the first trial. Only after such a finding would the court entertain an application for new medical experts.
The trial court ultimately decided that there were no grounds for a new trial, and Alsborg appealed again, arguing he should have had new medical experts to help with the new trial motion.
In rejecting this new appeal, Judge Joan Dempsey Klein wrote for the court of appeals that the issue was whether the strategic decision made by Alsborg’s original attorney in relying solely on the medical examiner’s testimony was outside the bounds of professional competence. Klein found that at the hearing held about Alsborg’s new trial motion, his original attorney testified about his strategic decisions, which fell within the acceptable bounds of conduct. The attorney consulted various experts, but decided not to use them for reasons of credibility and doubts about their conclusions on the question of whether, in light of the medical evidence, Campbell could have died from a heart attack rather than strangulation. When the trial attorney learned that the medical examiner agreed with him that the death could have occurred as a result of rough sex as Alsborg claimed, he decided it made sense to rely on that medical examiner’s testimony rather than bring in additional expert witnesses. What could be more authoritative on that point than having the medical examiner testify that the evidence did not rule out Alsborg’s version of events?
Ultimately, of course, the jury would be concerned not just with the technical reason for Campbell’s death, but perhaps primarily with Alsborg’s motivations in the case. And the jury could also believe that Alsborg and Campbell had rough sex but that the victim’s subsequent death was nonetheless no accident.