Thompson murder case: Judge rules to disclose witness' name to defendant

by Eric Laughlin | Democrat staff writer | © January 30, 2008  

A judge Monday ruled to allow cold case murder suspect Philip Arthur Thompson to be told the name of a witness set to testify against him in a trial now three weeks away.

Prior to the ruling, El Dorado County prosecutor Trish Kelliher had argued that the witness' safety could be at stake if his name was released to the 64-year-old defendant, who has been jailed without bail since his 2003 arrest.

Thompson's attorney Dain Weiner argued that it's his client's constitutional right to know the witness' name, adding that he and his investigator have only limited information regarding the man's background.

'The only person who knows what kind of bias this person has is Mr. Thompson,' Weiner said.

Judge James R. Wagoner, who is set to preside over the trial set to begin late next month, said Kelliher had shown him evidence during a closed session in his chambers that backed her public safety argument.

But the judge said in weighing the evidence Kelliher presented against Thompson's constitutional right to be able to participate in his trial, he could not side with the prosecution.

Judge Wagoner continued that the man's name will be known soon anyway, since the trial is less than a month away.

Kelliher then clarified with the judge that his ruling meant only Thompson (and not members of the media or public) could be given the witness' name.

The seasoned prosecutor had accused two Bay Area Internet journalists of witness intimidation in their posting of photographs and other information regarding witness Stanley Ellis, a convicted career criminal who is set to come out of federal prison to testify in the case.

Kelliher had also fought to keep that witness' name confidential, but Wagoner had ruled against her, citing state law that forbade the name from being kept secret.

In a another Thompson case proceeding Friday, Kelliher and Weiner conducted telephone interviews, known as conditional examinations, of the original El Dorado County sheriff's detective and a coroner who initially worked on the now 37-year-old case. Both men are elderly and noted physical problems at the time of the interviews

The former coroner, Donald Jones, testified that he found no evidence of victim Betty Cloer being sexually assaulted and that she had three .32 caliber bullets lodged in her body, at least one of which was in her brain. Jones said he has no independent knowledge of the case and that he was relying only on his report for all of his testimony.

Retired detective Mike Mergen then testified as to interviews he conducted of witnesses who on the October 1971 night of her murder saw Cloer leave with a large man, of whom they could not provide much of a description.

Thompson was arrested by El Dorado County detectives in October 2003 following a reported DNA hit that allegedly linked him to the remote homicide scene on Cambridge Road south of Highway 50

At the time of his arrest he had nearly finished serving time on a burglary conviction in Solano State Prison in Vacaville.

The trial is predicted to last upward of two months.