James Smith,right, is escorted into the court room of Judge Joe Parker at the Curry County Courthouse Monday afternoon by Transport Officer Cliff Chilcoat. (CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks)
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
Editor’s note: Content in this report may be offensive to some readers.
A district judge ruled Monday probable cause exists to pursue the death penalty in the first-degree murder trial of a former Clovis dentist.
Ninth Judicial District Judge Joe Parker made the ruling after the prosecution presented testimony Monday claiming that Laura McNaughton, 30, was held against her will and sexually assaulted before being killed last December by James Smith.
The purpose of the hearing was to determine if probable cause exists in kidnapping and criminal sexual penetration charges, which under state law allows for pursuit of the death penalty.
“He (Smith) says it was an accident. … Dismiss those two counts and make this case what it should be, which is a simple — well, not so simple — murder case,” defense attorney Mark Earnest argued.
Parker responded, “Throughout the evening, I don’t know if they enjoyed one another’s company initially or not, but at some time it went terribly wrong,” and he allowed both counts to be used to support the death penalty assertion.
Smith, 37, is scheduled to go on trial for first-degree murder June 1.
Earnest argued McNaughton willingly went with Smith and there was not enough physical evidence to prove sexual penetration.
He also pointed out there was no DNA evidence on the victim’s body to link her to Smith.
Lead investigator Sandy Loomis of the Curry County Sheriff’s Department told the court blood had been discovered last month in Smith’s truck.
Loomis said the blood was found on the passenger window, inside the door where it seeped under the window seal, in the seat and in the carpeting.
Investigators are awaiting results from a state crime lab to confirm the blood belonged to McNaughton, Loomis said.
Loomis told the court he believes, based on the finding of additional blood, that Smith abducted her outside her home the night of Dec. 9, 2005, and beat her head against the window as she sat in the front seat of his truck.
“I believe Laura never made it into the house that night,” he said.
He testified friends and family described McNaughton’s routine when she would arrive home and said there was no evidence she did any of her normal things that night.
McNaughton’s immediate cause of death was ruled as manual strangulation, though the blunt force trauma she sustained to her head would have been enough to kill her, Dr. Ian Paul of the medical investigator’s office said when he testified.
The injuries to her throat and head were caused by a significant amount of force, he said.
Paul, who performed an autopsy on McNaughton’s body, said the wounds from the strangulation were consistent with being choked by human hands.
One area of her head showed bruising below the scalp, indicating a section of her hair was pulled with extreme force, he said.
She also had defensive wounds on her face and chin that “might have been created by her own fingernails as she was trying to pry away someone’s hands,” Paul said.
Paul said wounds in her anal region indicated an attempt was made to sodomize her, but he could not say for certain that penetration occurred.
During his testimony, Loomis detailed statements Smith made after his arrest.
According to Loomis, Smith said he waited for McNaughton outside her work and followed her home. Smith said they drank some beer and went for a drive in the country before going to his house, Loomis said.
Smith told police McNaughton died in his living room and he placed her on the back porch until morning when he undressed her and cleaned her body, according to court records.
The next morning, Smith told investigators he placed her body in the back of his pickup truck and drove into the country where he placed her in a ditch, records show.
McNaughton’s body was found by hunters Dec. 10, 2005, in a rural county ditch.
Smith went on to play golf in the afternoon, Loomis said.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler argued the violence of McNaughton’s injuries supported the theory she was held against her will.
“When he was pulling on her hair so hard that it was separating her scalp from the blood vessels, was that against her will? Testimony shows that there was a knock-down, drag-out struggle with enough blunt force trauma that that alone would have killed her but for the strangulation,” Chandler told Parker in summation.
“By Smith’s own admission, she died in his presence, and he dumped her body and went and played 18 holes of golf. It’s crystal-clear, your honor.”
Earnest argued the sexual penetration should not stand if Paul could not confidently say it occurred.
He also argued McNaughton did not raise any concerns when she left a friend a message while with Smith, canceling plans for the evening.
“At 10:12 (the night before her body was found), when she was in his presence, she was not in any way alarmed or upset. What we have here is her going off voluntarily with him to have a beer,” Earnest said.
Testimony of Curry County Sheriff’s Office investigator Sandy Loomis:
—Called to a rural ditch on Curry Road C, investigators observed the body of Laura McNaughton, 30, lying nude in the undergrowth. “She appeared to me to have been staged — posed. She was clean. … She was completely nude.”
—Laura McNaughton’s hair stylist and her mother told police a Clovis dentist was “weirding” her out and she had expressed concern the day she disappeared.
—Lisa Newman, a friend of McNaughton’s, said McNaughton told her she did not want to date James Smith because he was married, though he had told her he was having a “rocky” marriage.
—Smith’s wife, Angie Smith, was “caught by surprise by this,” Loomis said. She told investigators she thought Smith had a drinking problem but thought they were working through it.
—McNaughton had plans to meet a friend at Chili’s restaurant after she got off work. She left work at 9:45 p.m. At 10:12 p.m. she left a message on a friend’s phone that something had come up and she wasn’t going to make it.
—Smith told police he followed her home from work and knocked on her door. He said she told him, “Well I guess we’re going to finally have that beer.” McNaughton family members told investigators she did not drink beer.
—One spot of blood located on the running board of Smith’s truck was determined to be McNaughton’s with “absolute scientific certainty.” There were also several strands of hair “reddish” in color found in the back seat of his truck.
—Smith purchased custom movies filmed to his specifications from an Internet
company. The movies depicted actresses posed in morgue scenes and showed morgue assistants cleaning and positioning the bodies of female actresses. He told investigators he was doing research for a book.
—Dec. 12, 2005, the day Smith was called in for questioning by police,
approximately 4,000 images were deleted from his laptop. Police found numerous images of women in morgues remaining on the computer during an examination after it was seized.
—The day before taking a polygraph test, Smith was hospitalized for three self-inflicted stab wounds to the stomach.
—There are still no results back on forensic tests of scrapings taken from McNaughton’s fingernails.
Testimony from Dr. Ian Paul, New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator:
—There were multiple abrasions and traumas to McNaughton’s head, neck and body as well as blood vessels that had burst in her eyes.
—She received a significant blow to the right frontal lobe of her head.
—If constant pressure was applied consistent with the massive force throat wounds indicated, McNaughton would have died in 10 to 15 seconds.
—All of McNaughton’s wounds occurred prior to her death and within the same time frame, approximately 12 hours before her death.
—Tearing and abrasions indicated an effort was made to sodomize McNaughton. There was no indication insertion was completed, though Paul said it was possible it happened to some extent.