Former classmate convicted of murdering long-lost California student Kristin Smart

Oct 18 (Reuters) – A former classmate of Kristin Smart, a freshman at University of California whose 1996 disappearance was long one of the state’s most sensational unsolved crimes, has been convicted on Tuesday of first degree murder for her death.

The guilty verdict against Paul Flores, 45, was returned by a 12-member jury in the Monterey County Superior Court following a three-month trial. He was arrested and charged in Smart’s death in April last year.

Flores faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life when sentenced Dec. 9.

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“Today, justice delayed is not justice denied,” San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said at a press conference.

A separate jury acquitted the defendant’s father, Ruben Flores, 81, on charges of helping hide Smart’s body, being an accomplice to murder after the fact.

Smart, who was 19 when she went missing, was last seen walking to her dorm on the campus of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, around 2 a.m. on May 25. 1996. She was coming back from a party off campus.

Prosecutors alleged Paul Flores killed her during a rape or attempted rape. His remains were never found although investigators said they searched 18 locations for his body.

Flores, long the prime suspect in her disappearance, told investigators he left the same gathering with Smart but separated from her about a block from her dorm.

Prosecutors and Sheriff Ian Parkinson both credited a 10-part documentary podcast, “Your Own Backyard,” launched by freelance journalist Chris Lambert in 2019 with the discovery of new evidence and witnesses that helped investigators solve the case.

Delays in investigating the case prompted state lawmakers to pass legislation requiring colleges and universities to share information about missing students with off-campus police more quickly.

According to a court report published by the San Luis Obispo Tribune newspaper, Paul Flores flinched when he read the guilty verdict. The victim’s father, Stan Smart, responded with a smile and put his around his tearful mother, Denise Smart.

Defense attorney Robert Sanger later told The Tribune that “the case is still pending” but declined to comment further. During his summons to the jury, Sanger claimed there was “no evidence of a murder”.

The trial was moved from San Luis Obispo County to a change of location requested by defense attorneys due to intense publicity surrounding the pretrial investigation.

Sheriff Parkinson has sworn the case will remain open until the victim’s remains are found and returned to his family.

Stan Smart, speaking to reporters after the trial, expressed appreciation for the outcome but added, “Without Kristin, there is no joy or happiness in this verdict.”

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Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Edwina Gibbs

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