After decades in prison, man is convicted in retrial for 1983 killing of LAPD officer

Boris Yaro –– – (l to r) Kenneth E.Gay (cq) and his attorney Kenneth Lezin (cq) shown here in San Fernando Superior Court where Gay was given the death sentence ( a second time) for the murder of LAPD motor officer Paul Verna (cq). Boris Yaro/LA Times DIGITAL IMAGE SHOT ON 12–04–00
Kenneth Gay, left, and attorney Kenneth Lezin in 2000 after he was sentenced to death in the killing of LAPD Officer Paul Verna. After his conviction was tossed by the California Supreme Court, Gay was retried this summer. (Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)

For the second time in four decades, an alleged armed robber has been convicted in the 1983 killing of Los Angeles Police Officer Paul Verna.

Kenneth Gay, 65, was convicted Friday of murder and a weapons offense in connection with the decades-old slaying. Gay was retried this summer after his conviction was thrown out on appeal.

Jurors deliberated for about two weeks, though there were some delays in the proceedings after one juror tested positive for COVID-19 and the San Fernando courtroom where the trial was held partly flooded during Tropical Storm Hilary.

For weeks, many of Verna's loved ones and several uniformed police officers lined the courtroom observing testimony. Some let out sighs of relief when the jury's verdict was read late Friday afternoon.

"It's not exactly happiness. We've been in trial for 11 weeks and to have the jury be out so long, it was agonizing," said Verna's widow, Sandy Jackson. "But the end result was what it should be. [Gay] should not be out among us."

Verna's two sons, who were 4 and 9 years old at the time of the shooting, both went on to join the LAPD as well and appeared in court throughout the trial, Jackson said.

Under California law, Gay — who has been incarcerated for roughly 40 years already — must spend the rest of his life in prison because he was convicted of murder with special circumstances.

Prosecutors alleged Gay, his partner in crime Raynard Cummings and their girlfriends shot and killed Verna to escape responsibility for engaging in a brutal string of robberies across the San Fernando Valley in the weeks leading up to the shooting.

During his closing arguments, L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Siddall displayed pictures of several of their robbery victims with ugly bruises, and noted how the couples went to Las Vegas to get married and celebrate their spoils between crimes.

Read more: 2 Convicted of Killing Officer, Could Get the Death Penalty

Both men had discussed killing police officers who "got in their way" during their crime rampage, according to Siddall, boasts that turned into brutal foreshadowing when Verna pulled them over while they were driving a stolen vehicle on June 2, 1983.

“They know that if they’re caught with a gun or with a stolen car, they’re going back to prison," Siddall said.

As Verna was questioning the driver, prosecutors allege, Cummings fired one shot from a revolver inside the car, stunning the officer. Gay then exited the car and emptied the gun into Verna's body, prosecutors told the jury.

As he lay dying, prosecutors said, Verna managed to scribble information about the car on a field identification card, aiding in the suspects' capture later on.

When police caught up with Gay and Cummings in San Diego County, arresting officers said they found Verna's stolen service weapon near Gay as he hid in the back seat of a car. Prosecutors described it as a "trophy."

Both men were convicted of killing Verna at their initial trial in 1985 and were later sentenced to death. But Gay's death sentence was thrown out in 2020 after the California Supreme Court decided his initial trial lawyer was incompetent.

A second jury was assembled to decide whether Gay should face life in prison or execution. He was again sentenced to death, but that verdict was also reversed after the state Supreme Court decided a judge erred in barring Gay and his attorney from presenting mitigating evidence during the penalty phase.

Read more: LAPD officer's alleged killer stands trial again after conviction in 1983 case was tossed

Gay has always maintained that Cummings was the sole shooter, something his former co-defendant has strongly implied in testimony and recorded jailhouse conversations that were put before the jury in San Fernando.

Cummings, 66, took the stand on Gay's behalf during his most recent trial but never flat-out confessed to killing Verna in court. He was sentenced to death and remains incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison.

Defense attorney Monnica Thelen, however, said in her closing argument that Cummings had admitted on multiple occasions in recorded jailhouse conversations to killing Verna.

“I was feeling it was kind of cruel to take someone with you when the person didn’t have nothing to do with it," Cummings said at one point, according to Thelen.

Thelen dismissed the prosecution's argument that Cummings handed the gun to Gay as "ridiculous."

But Cummings' then-wife, Pamela, took the stand to validate that claim early in the eight-week trial. She has long maintained that Gay was the sole shooter and took a plea deal at the initial trial to testify for the prosecution.

Thelen has dismissed Pamela Cummings' testimony as error-riddled and a desperate attempt to shift blame from her then-husband, though Pamela told the jury she hadn't spoken to Raynard Cummings in 20 years.

Gay's fight for a new trial lasted decades.

Gay has argued that his former attorney, Daye Shinn, took the role under fraudulent circumstances, advised him to admit to incriminating details and failed to introduce exculpatory evidence. Shinn was disbarred and has since died.

As she wrapped up her closing arguments earlier this month, Thelen told jurors that while Verna's murder was certainly a tragedy, so was Gay's time in prison for a murder he was merely a witness to.

“The evidence shows the sole killer in this case has already been held accountable," she said.

Sign up for Essential California, your daily guide to news, views and life in the Golden State.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.