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The case of a lifetime

Lawyer recounts the long battle of bringing a murderer to justice.

May 17, 2010|By Nicole Charky

In the toughest, longest case of Steve Mercer’s 12-year law career, he stood before the United States Supreme Court, spoke with a photo in hand and a mission in mind: to represent his client, 19-year-old Melanie Ookhtens, who was murdered by her cousin.

The La Cañada resident serves as deputy attorney with the California attorney general’s office in Los Angeles and dedicated several years to Knowles v. Mirzayance, which involved the fatal stabbing and shooting of Ookhtens, a sophomore at USC, by her cousin, Alexandre Mirzayance. Ookhtens was murdered in her family’s home while her parents were away celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

“It would have been really easy to just forget about [the case], but nobody wanted to forget about Melanie,” Mercer said. “She was the reason we all did this. I had my picture of her when I was at the Supreme Court to let me know this was my client. This was who I was here for.”

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Mirzayance’s defense team initially assembled a number of experts to defend him in court, including former California Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian.

“The [Ookhtens] family’s fear all along was that money was going to buy this murderer’s freedom, but I think we did prevail,” he said. “They were all very good lawyers and very professional; it was just the idea that if you spend the right money, or all the right expert witnesses or doctors, then it might go away, but in the end the jury decided the case and the defendant had turned himself in to police within hours after the murder.”

The case bounced between the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court twice after Mirzayance was convicted of first-degree murder. After the conviction, his attorney withdrew his insanity plea, saying several plans for testimony had fallen through, rendering his strategy impossible.

Mirzayance filed a legal challenge, arguing that abandoning the strategy constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court eventually ruled against his argument.

The case changed Mercer’s career.

“It was the case of a lifetime,” he said. “It was really the pinnacle of my career in the Department of Justice. It was about six years of litigation through the federal courts.”

Melanie Ookhtens’ parents, Murad and Flora Ookhtens, worked closely for more than six years with Mercer.

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