LOS ANGELES - A father was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder for tossing his 4-year-old daughter off a sea cliff nearly 15 years ago to get revenge against the girl's mother and avoid custody payments.
Cameron Brown showed no emotion as the verdict in the long-running case was read in Los Angeles Superior Court, while the mother of Lauren Sarene Key breathed heavily and began crying in the gallery.
Two previous juries deadlocked over whether Brown was guilty of murder or manslaughter.
Brown, 53, faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole when sentenced June 19 for the murder and special circumstances that he lay in wait and killed the girl for financial gain.
"Judge, I'm innocent, I have no comment," Brown said when asked about the sentencing date.
The former airline baggage handler hurled the girl off the 120-foot cliff in November 2000 because he never wanted the child and was locked in a bitter dispute with her mother over child support and custody, prosecutors said.
Brown told police the girl tripped and fell as she ran toward the cliff's edge at Inspiration Point in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Defense lawyer Aron Laub argued that his client was a bad dad, but not a murderer and asked jurors to convict him of manslaughter.
"I sincerely believe that is what happened in this case," Laub said after the verdict. "I have great confidence in our jury system, but I cannot agree that this was a just verdict."
The verdict that was nearly 12 years in coming took the jury little more than a day to reach.
Foreman Greg Apodaca said jurors were unanimous from their first discussions and it was a "relatively simple decision to make" after hearing nearly six weeks of evidence and visiting the scenic bluff about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
"The expert witnesses made it pretty clear and when we did the site visit it was clear to us, as well, that it didn't seem likely that a 4-year-old girl would be up there of her own volition," Apodaca said.
Prosecution experts said the girl's injuries were not consistent with an accidental fall because she couldn't have run fast enough to clear part of the cliff before either striking an outcropping or hitting the beach below. A defense witness said the death could have been an accident.
Jurors heard most of the same evidence as previous juries, but this time Los Angeles sheriff's Detective Jeffrey Leslie bolstered evidence of a financial motive by finding someone who said Brown said it would be "nice to get rid of Lauren" to get out of paying $1,000-a-month child support, Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum said.
"That witness made a significant difference," Hum said, though the primary motive was hatred toward the girl's mom, Sarah Key-Marer. "He hated Sarah so much that he was willing to go to these lengths to get back at her."
Hum told jurors that Brown's statements were riddled with lies and that Brown had wanted Key-Marer, a British citizen, to get an abortion and he even tried to get her deported.
Jurors in 2006 and 2009 had decided the death was a crime, but they couldn't agree on the charge. Eight voted for second-degree murder at his first trial, and four remaining votes were split between first-degree and involuntary manslaughter. The second panel split, with half voting for second-degree murder and half for manslaughter.
Key-Marer said she was in shock from the verdict and thanked the prosecutor, police, witnesses and jury.
"All I ever wanted was that he would take responsibility for what happened that day," she said. "It's all been really hard. The pain. We just learned to live with the pain."