A jury on Tuesday convicted a Modesto man of voluntary manslaughter in the death of his roommate, who was found buried in a shallow grave in Tuolumne County 12 years ago.
Seven men and five women decided there wasn't enough evidence to find Russell Todd Jones guilty of the more serious charge of second-degree murder in the death of 36-year-old Dena Raley-McCluskey in October 1999.
Raley-McCluskey's relatives were surprised and gasped after they heard the court clerk announce Jones was convicted of the lesser charge, which comes with a possible sentence of three, six or 11 years in prison. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira ordered Jones to return to court Aug. 10 to schedule his sentencing hearing.
Jones sat stoically as the jury's verdict was read. He waved to his father as deputies escorted him back to the county jail, where he will remain until he is sentenced.
Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees said that she will argue for the maximum sentence for Jones.
"I absolutely respect the jury's decision given the evidence that we had," Rees said. "Evidence was destroyed over eight years. We still know he's responsible for her death."
Jones, 51, told police he buried Raley-McCluskey's body near his parents' property in Groveland, where it stayed hidden until authorities unearthed her skeletal remains in October 2007. He also told investigators he cleaned blood spots from the home with a rented carpet cleaner and hot water with bleach.
Forensic experts never confirmed what caused Raley-McCluskey's death because the body tissue had decomposed.
Frank Carson, Jones' defense attorney, said the lack of evidence should have convinced the jury his client was not responsible for
"We're obviously disappointed, because I think he should have been acquitted," Carson said. "We're disappointed it had to go this far. We don't think we got a fair shot at this."
Jones initially told investigators he found his roommate dead in the central Modesto home they shared on Karen Way. He said he panicked, buried her body and didn't tell anyone because he was afraid police would not believe him.
After extensive questioning, Jones confessed to investigators that he punched Raley-McCluskey once during an argument over a $20 bar bill.
Robert Jones, the defendant's father, sat in the courtroom throughout the trial several feet behind his son. He declined to comment Tuesday.
The case proved to be a grueling ordeal for Raley-McCluskey's mother and stepmother, who listened to 17 days of testimony in the trial that went on for five weeks.
Her mother, Barbara West, walked out of the courtroom one day after seeing photos of authorities sifting through dirt and excavating her daughter's remains. Donna Raley, Raley-McCluskey's stepmother, remained seated that day and wiped tears from her face.
West said after the hearing that she was disappointed the jury did not return with a murder conviction, but she felt her daughter finally received justice.
"I was shaking so bad," West said about hearing the verdict in court. "The hard part was not crying in the courtroom, because they told us we couldn't cry."
Raley also had mixed feelings about the verdict. She said she felt voluntary manslaughter has a punishment that's like a "slap on the hand."
"I'm pleased that it's finally over after almost 12 years," she said. "I was really hoping for second-degree murder, because Dena's gone and (Jones') life still continues."
Former Modesto police Sgt. Craig Plante played a key role in the investigation and eventually draw notoriety to the case.
Plante decided to question Jones, who had never been a focus of the investigation. Police had looked at Raley-McCluskey's boyfriend, Mark Keough, but never found evidence linking him to her disappearance.
Plante testified that Jones appeared to have something to hide. He formed a good rapport with Jones, who was later convinced by Plante to lead them to the burial site and confess to hitting Raley-McCluskey.
Plante retired in September after 26 years with the department. On his final day, he wrote an e-mail to co-workers that recounted "B&R" events — when officers allegedly would beat and release people.
In effort to challenge the credibility of the prosecution's case, Carson told the jury Plante was the "star of the investigation" and viewed the Raley-McCluskey case in October 2007 as his chance to grab the spotlight.
Plante's e-mail, coupled with an anonymous letter alleging police brutality and a department cover-up, triggered a five-month independent investigation. It found no pattern of police misconduct and no evidence of a cover-up.
Tuesday, Plante sat in the courtroom to hear the jury's verdict. Several other Modesto police investigators and staff members were also there, along with courthouse officials and defense attorneys.
"The jury had a tough job, but they got it right," Plante said.
As family and friends gathered in the courthouse hallway after the verdict, West walked up to Plante and embraced him.
"You did it, you brought her home," West told Plante as she hugged him tightly with tears in her eyes. "I can never thank you enough."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.