A little more than four decades have passed since Paul Verna’s final day as a police officer.
The 35-year-old motorcycle cop thought he was making a routine traffic stop on June 2, 1983, prosecutors said. But he had pulled over a vehicle occupied by four people who’d committed a string of armed robberies in the San Fernando Valley in recent weeks.
As Verna approached the vehicle, prosecutors say, Raynard Cummings shot him once from the backseat of the car before the man described as his “partner in crime,” Kenneth Gay, exited the vehicle and emptied a revolver into Verna’s body.
Both men were convicted in 1985 of killing Verna and were later sentenced to death. But Gay, 65, was back in front of a jury Tuesday, hoping for a second chance at an acquittal in the same San Fernando courthouse.
Gay’s conviction was thrown out in 2020 after the California Supreme Court decided that his initial trial lawyer was incompetent. That left Deputy Dist. Atty. David Ayvazian to try convincing a jury that, despite the legal headaches that led to a new trial, Gay’s guilt remains unquestioned.
“Even 40 years and four days after this man was murdered, nothing has changed. What was true on June 2, 1983 ... is true today,” Ayvazian said Tuesday to a gallery filled with Verna’s loved ones and fellow LAPD officers. “And the truth is that Kenneth Gay, along with his crime partner, murdered Officer Verna.”
Gay, Cummings and their wives were arrested together in a car in San Diego County after the shooting. Police said they found Verna’s gun near Gay; Ayvazian referred to it as a “trophy” in his opening statements.
Defense attorney Monnica Thelen argued that two tragedies occurred the day of Verna’s murder: the officer’s killing and the first step toward the conviction of “a truly innocent man.” Thelen argued that Cummings was the sole gunman and dismissed as “absolutely ridiculous” the prosecution’s theory that he passed the gun to Gay to finish off Verna.
Thelen also pointed to comments Cummings made in custody in which he claimed credit for Verna’s death.
“I’m no ghost. The only ghost I know is Officer Verna, and I put six in him,” Cummings said while in county jail after another inmate shouted “Dead man walking,” according to Thelen.
Ayvazian showed pictures of Gay taken in 1983, when he had frizzy hair and a short mustache — a stark contrast to the bald, elderly man who was wheeled into court Tuesday wearing a sweater vest. At a 1985 trial, Ayvazian noted, four witnesses identified Gay specifically or a “light-skinned person as the outside shooter.” Gay is biracial; Cummings is Black.
Gay, Cummings and their girlfriends had carried out at least five armed robberies in the San Fernando Valley between April 1983 and the day of Verna’s murder, according to Ayvazia. The spree was broken up by a quick trip to Las Vegas, where both couples got married.
In his opening argument, Ayvazian said the men had beaten elderly victims during several of the robberies, displaying graphic images of store owners bruised and battered.
When Verna pulled over the car carrying the couples, Ayvazian said, Gay opened fire out of fear of going to prison.
“When confronted with the real possibility of getting caught, he killed a man doing his job,” the prosecutor said.
Patricia Cummings took a plea deal and testified that Gay was the lone shooter, a statement she repeated on the stand Tuesday afternoon. Thelen has said Patricia lied to protect herself and her then-husband, noting that she was desperate to be spared from prison after being linked to a cop killing. On the stand Tuesday, Patricia said she hadn’t spoken to Cummings in more than two decades.
Gay’s fight for a new trial has spanned decades. His death sentence was initially overturned due to questions about his attorney’s competence; 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 based on competence issues.
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.
Cummings, 66, remains imprisoned in San Quentin. L.A. County Superior Court Judge Hayden Zacky said Tuesday he had signed an order to compel Cummings to appear at Gay’s retrial.