No death penalty in slaying of 2 girls

MERCED -- A former Winton man will not face the death penalty in connection with the bludgeoning deaths of two Atwater girls in 1986, a prosecutor said Monday.

Merced County deputy district attorney Dave Moranda said his office will pursue a life sentence without the possibility of parole in the case of Robert Thompson, 42, who was arrested last year in the killings of Sheila Carter, 15, and Jodi Ragsdale, 12. News of the prosecution's decision came during a routine readiness hearing Monday in Merced Superior Court.

Although Moranda did not specify why prosecutors chose not to pursue the death penalty, he mentioned the length of time between the killings and Thompson's arrest as one of the factors.

"That's about all I can say on it, really," Moranda said. "In weighing all of the factors, that's the decision we came up with."

Although he appreciated the prosecution's decision not to pursue the death penalty, defense attorney Randy Thomas said, "the consequences of this case are still severe. We look forward to our day in court."

Thompson's trial is scheduled for Oct. 29, with pretrial motions set for Oct. 24.

Family members of the victims hugged and shed tears outside the courtroom after the hearing. John Wetzel, Jodi's uncle, said he was not upset with the decision.

"It's been a long time. Looking at the evidence and their ability to prosecute (the case), I can support the decision," Wetzel said. "We just want the person who is responsible (for the killings) to be held accountable."

Thompson is accused of beating Jodi and Sheila with a car jack and dumping their bodies on the side of a road in Cressey. Investigators arrested him in August 2006 after analyzing DNA evidence.

During a preliminary hearing earlier this year, witnesses for the prosecution testified that Thompson was seen with the girls in the hours before their deaths, although the defense claims that another man committed the crime.

Thompson's former girlfriend, Becky Tilton, testified during the hearing that Thompson came home at dawn with blood on his hands and clothes the morning of the girls' deaths, sneaking in through the bedroom window of the mobile home they shared. She said Thompson ordered her to burn his bloody clothes.

Thomas argued that Sheila's ex-boyfriend, Greg Myers, is to blame for the killings. Although he acknowledged being one of the last people to see Sheila and Jodi alive, Myers has denied involvement in their deaths.

The bodies of the girls were discovered Dec. 13, 1986. Investigators said the girls were supposed to be spending the night at an Atwater home where they were baby-sitting, but went out for a joy ride in a borrowed car. Merced County coroner's officials determined the girls were not sexually assaulted.

Thompson, a registered sex offender with convictions including kidnapping and assault with intent to commit rape, lived in Winton at the time of the deaths. He was living in Crescent City and working as a landscaper when he was arrested last year.

Thompson remains in jail without bail.