The Switchblade Kid: The Life and Death of Sal Mineo
On January 17, 1978, the case against Lionel went before Judge Andrew Weitz at the Beverly Hills Municipal Court for a pretrial hearing. Lionel pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder as well as ten counts of robbery and one count of attempted robbery. The latter charges were included when witnesses identified Lionel as the perpetrator in a string of robberies in the Los Angeles area. Bail was posted at $500,000 and Lionel returned to jail to await trial.
Following several delays, the trial began on January 9, 1979, one day shy of what would have been Sal's 40th birthday. Leading the prosecution team was Deputy Michael Genelin. Mort Herberts, a court appointed lawyer, represented Lionel Williams. Judge Ronnie Lee Martin presided over the hearing.
The theory supporting the prosecution's case was that the murder was premeditated, which would make Lionel eligible for the death penalty. They believed that Lionel was awaiting Sal's return from his rehearsals in order to rob him, but his attempt was stymied when Sal's screams brought unwanted attention. The prosecution's case hung on several key pieces of evidence during the trial, including the statement made by Lionel's deceased wife, testimony from an acquaintance of Lionel's and the medical examiner.
During the trial the prosecution presented important evidence that supported the theory that Lionel stabbed Sal Mineo. The prosecution presented to the court a duplicate knife similar to the one Theresa Williams claimed her husband had on the night of the murder. Jeffers writes that testimony by L.A. County Medical Examiner Dr. Noguchi revealed that when he had inserted the knife into Sal's incised stab wound, he found a perfect match between the perforation in the tissue and the blade.
Twenty-six-year-old Allwyn Price Williams, an acquaintance of Lionel's, testified that Lionel bragged about stabbing Sal with a pearl-handled knife during an attempted robbery. He further claimed that Sal fled in a Lincoln Continental. However, the defense challenged his testimony, damaging his credibility.
The defense believed that the prosecution's theory was based on flimsy evidence. When Herbert cross-examined Allwyn Williams, they discovered he did not tell the truth to prosecutors. He admitted to lying about both the knife and the Lincoln Continental in an interview with prosecutors, because he thought it would get him out of jail earlier. At the time the interview was conducted Allwyn was in jail for kidnapping.
In an effort to clear Lionel of the charges, Herbert stated to jurors that it was precarious to assume that the replica of the knife was an exact copy of the one Lionel's wife had seen or even the one used to kill Sal. Especially since the witness was deceased and could not testify further to the events surrounding the conversation. Herbert further stated that there was no strong evidence supporting this theory because there was no weapon ever found or any witness to the crime.
The defense further tried to discount the prosecution's case by presenting three witnesses whose description of the alleged perpetrator didn't match Lionel's appearance. Two witnesses claimed to have seen a white man. One of them stated that he had curly long blonde hair, whereas another witness claimed his hair was black. A third witness said the man he saw fleeing the scene and getting into a yellow Toyota appeared Italian or Mexican in origin with curly hair. Following the witness' testimony, Herbert argued that Lionel could not have been the person seen at the crime.
However, the prosecution retaliated by showing the jury a picture of Lionel that was taken at the time of the murder. According to Jeffers, the picture showed Lionel with light skin and long bleached hair. Moreover, they provided records that Lionel had borrowed a light-colored Dodge Colt that resembled a Toyota from a dealership on the day of the murder. The evidence proved to be damaging. On March 16, 1979, more than three years after Sal's death, Lionel was found guilty of 10 of the 11 charges and sentenced to 51 years to life.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Lionel's trial. Many believe that Lionel was not the killer. Some still believe that the killing was a result of a homosexual dispute. What really happened on February 12, 1976, will remain a mystery known to only Sal and his killer.
For more photos and information, visit the official web site of Sal Mineo at www.salmineo.com.