Victim: Monica Wilkins, 18
Age at time of murder: 17
Crime location: Nevada desert
Crime date: March 8, 1991
Partner in crime: Robert Byford, 20
Crimes: Murder, arson, and corpse abuse
Weapon: .25 caliber handgun
Murder method: Three to five gunshots to the back and two gunshots to the head
Murder motivation: Monica had angered them and they wanted to “get rid of her”
Sentence: Life without parole (LWOP) later reduced
Incarceration status: Released after 25 years
Summary of the crime
The assailants took Monica to the desert. Williams shot Monica in the back. After being shot by Williams, Monica confronted him. He told her he had shot her because she was “a bitch.” Byford then shot her in the head. After murdering Monica, the assailants doused her body with gasoline and set her ablaze.
Williams and Byford had become angry at Monica after she invited them to her apartment to party but then left with other men. They wanted to “get rid of her” because she was always “playing games with our heads.”
By Cy Ryan
Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010
CARSON CITY – Robert Byford, convicted of the murder of an 18-year old girl in the desert outside Las Vegas, has failed to convince the Nevada Supreme Court that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
The court, in a unanimous 35-page opinion today, rejected claims by Byford that his trial and appeal attorneys were ineffective and he deserves a new trial.
Byford, now 39, and Christopher Williams, now 37, were convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Monica Wilkins in 1991. The Supreme Court overturned their convictions after the first trial, but they were convicted at a second trial.
Byford was sentenced to death and Williams received a life term without the possibility of parole.
In its ruling, it said “This court has held that the death penalty does not violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment found either in the United States Constitution or the Nevada Constitution.”
At the time of the killing, Byford, then 20 years old, and Williams, who was 17, complained that Wilkins was always “playing games with our heads.” On the night of the murder in March 1991, Wilkins told the two there was a party in the desert outside Las Vegas.
But they didn’t find a party. Williams shot her several times, then Byford took the gun and shot her twice in the head. Byford then got a can of gasoline and poured it on Wilkins and set her afire. Her body was buried later.
Among his claims of errors, Byford said his lawyers failed to adequately object to the move by the district attorney’s office to remove two prospective jurors who opposed the death penalty.
The court said the jurors who were chosen indicated they could consider all the sentencing options.
In another decision, the court overturned the district court decision that massage therapist Ellen Birnbaum was entitled to workers’ compensation after being fired by Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
The court ordered the case sent back to the hearings officer to consider more testimony. Birnbaum worked for Caesars for about eight years but then experienced numbness.
She was fired, but one month after her termination, she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and she filed her workers’ compensation claim.
Cannon Cochran Management Services Inc., which handled the workers’ compensation claims for Caesars, denied the claim by Birnbaum.
Supreme Court of Nevada.
Robert BYFORD, Appellant, v. The STATE of Nevada, Respondent.
Decided: February 28, 2000
Byford’s second trial began in February 1998, at which time the following evidence was adduced.
Byford, Williams, and two teenage girls were visiting Smith at his parents’ residence in Las Vegas on March 8, 1991. Byford was twenty years old, Williams seventeen, and Smith nineteen. Monica Wilkins, who was eighteen, called and told Smith she would pay him for a ride home from a local casino. Smith drove his jeep to pick Wilkins up, accompanied by Williams and one of the girls. After Smith picked up Wilkins and her friend, Jennifer Green, he asked Wilkins for gas money. Wilkins had Smith stop at a Burger King so that she could get some money. Williams went inside the store to see what was taking her so long, and Wilkins told him that she had gotten another ride. Smith and Williams were upset with Wilkins, and after they drove away, Williams fired a handgun out the window of the jeep.
Smith testified that Wilkins had angered him, Williams, and Byford before because she had invited them to her apartment to party but then left with other men. Byford and Williams had talked about “get[ting] rid of her” because she was always “playing games with our heads.” Smith participated in the talk but took the threats as jokes.
Later that night, Smith, Williams, and Byford were together at Smith’s house when Wilkins called again for a ride home. Accompanied by Byford and Williams, Smith drove to pick her up. Smith then drove all four of them to the desert outside of town to find a party that Byford heard was taking place. Wilkins told the other three that she had taken LSD earlier and was hallucinating. Smith drove to the usual area for parties, but they found no party. They then stopped so that everyone could urinate. Wilkins walked up a ravine to do so.
Smith testified to the following. As Wilkins finished, Byford handed Williams a handgun and said he “couldn’t do it.” Smith asked Byford what he was doing with the gun, and Byford told Smith to “stay out of it.” Williams then shot Wilkins in the back three to five times. She screamed and fell to the ground. Wilkins got up, walked to Williams, and asked him why he had shot her. He told her that he had only shot around her. Wilkins walked up out of the ravine but then felt the back of her neck, saw that she was bleeding, and again confronted Williams. Williams told her that he shot her because she was “a bitch.” He then walked behind her and shot her again repeatedly. Wilkins screamed and fell to the ground again. Byford then took the gun from Williams, said that he would “make sure the bitch is dead,” and fired two shots into her head. Byford then got a can of gasoline from the jeep and poured it on Wilkins. Byford tried to hand a lighter to Smith and get him to light the gasoline, but Smith refused. Byford called him a “wussie” and lit the body. As it burned, the three drove off. As they returned to Las Vegas, Byford pointed the handgun at Smith and threatened to kill him if he ever told anyone.
Smith further testified that about a week after the murder, Byford and Williams had him drive them back to the desert to bury the body. An inmate who was incarcerated in jail with Byford and Williams after their arrest also testified that the two told him about this trip back to the body. They told the inmate that the body was decomposing and had maggots on it. Byford and Williams rolled the corpse into the ravine and partly covered it with a few shovelfuls of dirt.
After about two more weeks, the body was discovered by target shooters. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department investigators collected sixteen .25 caliber shell casings at the site; ballistic testing showed that all were fired from the same weapon. Ten .25 caliber bullets were recovered; five were in the body. Three bullets were in the chest and abdomen, and two were in the head. Either of the bullets in the head would have been fatal. The body was partly eaten by coyotes or wild dogs. Other bullets could have been lost from the body due to this eating or the burning and decomposition of the body. The burning appeared to be postmortem.
In mid-April 1991, Byford’s friend, Billy Simpson, was visiting Byford’s residence. When the two came upon a dead rabbit covered with maggots, Byford told Simpson that he had seen maggots on a human body before. That same night, Simpson and his brother Chad observed Byford and Williams engage in “play acting” in which Williams acted as if he shot Byford with a gun, Byford fell and then stood back up, and Williams opened his eyes wide and pretended to reload and shoot him again. Byford and Williams explained that they had shot and killed Wilkins in the desert and then burned her body.
In the spring or summer of 1991, Byford conversed with two girls in a city park. He admitted to them that he and Williams had shot and killed a girl in the desert and then burned her body. He told them that he wanted to see what would happen when someone under the influence of “acid” was shot. In August 1991, Byford told another friend that he was a “bad person” and “had done evil things” because he had shot and killed someone in order to know what it felt like to kill someone.
After the police investigation led to Byford and Williams, Byford asked his girlfriend to provide an alibi for him by telling the police that on the night of the murder they had been on the phone all night.
Neither Byford nor Williams testified. However, Williams introduced, over Byford’s objection, Byford’s testimony from the first trial. The gist of that prior testimony was that Smith and Wilkins were boyfriend and girlfriend, that they argued that night, that Smith shot Wilkins, and that Byford and Williams only aided Smith in concealing the crime. The testimony also included Byford’s admission that he had a prior felony conviction for attempted possession of a stolen vehicle. In closing argument, the prosecutor referred to Byford as a convicted felon.
The jury found Byford and Williams guilty of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon.
At the penalty hearing, the State called Marian Wilkins, the mother of the victim, to testify on the impact of losing her daughter. A probation officer testified that Byford had violated his probation conditions in 1991 and been placed under house arrest. Byford violated house arrest in 1992 by removing his transmitter bracelet and absconding. The officer also described Byford’s juvenile record, which included burglary in 1984 and carrying a concealed weapon in 1987. A detention officer testified that in 1994 Byford was disciplined for fighting with another inmate at the Clark County Detention Center; the officer considered Byford to be a behavioral problem for the Center.
Two of Byford’s aunts testified to Byford’s good character growing up, as did his sister. Byford’s mother also testified on his behalf and described him as a good boy and a caring son. Byford and his father had often got in conflicts, and his father was “heavy-handed” in disciplining him. Byford was very close to his grandfather. When his grandfather died, he became angry and withdrawn and quit attending church. Byford’s mother was raising Byford’s son. Byford talked with his son on the phone and was a good influence on him.
Thomas Kinsora, a Ph.D. in clinical neuropsychology, testified for Byford. Byford was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child. He had conflicts with and anger toward his father for the latter’s abuse of alcohol and emotional distance. Byford lost interest in school and immersed himself in alcohol and marijuana after his grandfather’s death. He later used methamphetamines heavily for a time. After testing Byford, Dr. Kinsora concluded that the results were largely unremarkable and that Byford was not psychopathic.
Byford spoke briefly in allocution and said that he was sorry for his part in Wilkins’s death.
In Byford’s case, jurors found one mitigating circumstance: possible substance abuse. The jury found two aggravating circumstances: the murder was committed by a person under sentence of imprisonment and involved torture or mutilation of the victim. Byford received a sentence of death. In Williams’s case, jurors found six mitigating circumstances. One aggravating circumstance was found: the murder involved torture or mutilation of the victim. Williams received a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.