Mistrial called in Merced double slaying

MERCED -- A judge declared a mistrial Wednesday in the 21-year-old double-homicide case of Robert Thompson, leaving families on both sides of the courtroom aisle with more questions than answers.

The jury of six men and six women was divided eight to four, with the majority of jurors voting guilty.

Thompson, 42, was on trial on two counts of first-degree homicide in the deaths of 12-year-old Jodi Ragsdale and 15-year-old Sheila Carter, both of Atwater.

Thompson remains in custody at Merced County Main Jail, pending a bail review hearing later this month. A hearing is scheduled Feb. 29 to determine whether the Merced County district attorney's office will pursue a new trial.

The victims' families hugged and cried after Judge John Kirihara announced the mistrial. Two large smiling portraits of Ragsdale and Carter stood in the hallway behind the courtroom.

Members of Thompson's family quietly left the courtroom. Thompson remained stoic throughout the proceeding, then swiftly was led out of the courtroom by bailiffs after the ruling.

Prosecutors Dave Moranda and Mark Bacciarini didn't indicate whether the district attorney's office would aim for a new trial.

"We still believe in the merits of this case," Bacciarini said. "We'll be meeting and discussing how to proceed from here."

Defense attorney Randy Thomas said he felt that much of the scientific evidence worked in favor of his client. "I think the split in this jury is an indicator that the case was not nearly as strong as they had originally assumed," he said.

None of the jurors would answer questions as they left the courtroom, although one woman responded that "it was hard," when asked about the jury impasse.

Members of Thompson's family refused comment.

Thompson was accused of bludgeoning Ragsdale and Carter to death with a car jack. Their bodies were discovered along the shoulder of Campodonica Road near Cressey on Dec. 13, 1986.

Thompson was arrested Aug. 18, 2006, after DNA from one of the victims linked him to the crime. A jack found in the trunk of a white Mercury Comet, which allegedly belonged to Thompson in 1986, was found to contain traces of Carter's DNA.

At the time of the slayings, DNA testing was in its early stages.

The trial clearly was hard for the victims' families, many members of which sat through gruesome crime scene video and photos of Ragsdale and Carter. One investigator commented during the trial that the girls were beaten so horrifically, their faces were almost unrecognizable.

John Wetzel, Ragsdale's uncle, said that although he feels the jurors did "the best they could," he acknowledged disappointment over the impasse.

"You take all the pieces of evidence and add them up, it just feels like (Thompson) was there," Wetzel said. "We're just hoping that if we do it again, we can get it right and get 12 people to agree that this is what happened."

If convicted, Thompson, a reputed member of the Hells Angels, was facing life in prison without parole.