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Paul Flores guilty in 1996 murder of student Kristin Smart

The juries deliberated more than a week before reaching a verdict in a crime that occurred 26 years ago.

SALINAS, Calif. (CN) — A jury on Tuesday found Paul Flores guilty of murdering California Polytechnic University student Kristin Smart in 1996, following a monthslong trial — and 26 years of fervent investigation. 

Paul Flores' jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. His father Ruben Flores' jury found the elder Flores not guilty of helping his son conceal the murder.

Although Ruben Flores' jury reached a verdict Monday, Paul Flores' had another day to finish their deliberations and arrived Tuesday morning well-dressed, according to podcaster Chris Lambert, who is reporting on the trial. The deliberations had some unexpected issues, including one juror being replaced last week after the revelation that he confessed to a priest about his involvement with the trial, according to San Luis Obispo's paper The Tribune.

The San Luis Obispo case has been the subject of intense study and many theories since the night in May 1996 when Smart was last seen leaving a party near her college campus. Detectives accused Paul Flores of lying about details of that night, but never had enough evidence to arrest him. Then Lambert's podcast “Your Own Backyard,” studying the missing persons case, reignited interest and circulated new details that, along with dogged local reporting, contributed to the search of Ruben Flores’ Arroyo Grande home and the arrest of both men in 2021. 

The road to trial has also been arduous, with the trial moved to Monterey County due to publicity surrounding the case, and a process to assemble two juries led to more than 1,000 potential jurors being examined. 

San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle, who led the prosecution’s case, told the jury in his closing arguments this month they must focus on the fact that Paul Flores was known for his “inappropriate” interest in Smart by multiple witnesses and has remained the primary suspect for two decades. 

DA Dan Dow’s case revolves around the theory that Flores insisted on walking Smart home from a party, in the direction of his dormitory rather than her own, and that he killed her likely during an attempted rape and asked his father to help hide the body. Dow reminded jurors of the hole in Ruben Flores’ backyard, the only one there, which was sized for a human body — with underground stains which tested positive for human blood, and fibers matching the colors of clothing Smart wore when she vanished. He also shared many pieces of evidence again, such as a “trophy room” of items about Smart in Ruben Flores’ home, audio and video clips of both men making contradictory statements when questioned about Smart’s disappearance.

Smart’s family and friends detailed the woman they knew as being extremely close to her family and other students, a person who would never disappear without her belongings and without ever speaking to them again unless the worst had taken place. 

In their closing arguments, Paul and Ruben Flores’ attorneys attacked prosecutors for presenting mostly circumstantial evidence, without a body after 26 years. They said the two men had been the subject of a conspiracy and harassment for years, attacking witnesses’ credibility and experts called by prosecutors from forensics scientists to cadaver dog trainers. They also repeatedly told the jury to focus on Smart’s attending parties and “kissing boys” as well as what she was wearing on a “cold” Memorial Day weekend night. 

“The impact that Kristin’s disappearance and its investigation have had on the Smart family and our community, spanning a quarter century, is profound,” Dow said in a statement. “This verdict provides some sense of justice for Kristin, the Smarts and our community. Today, justice delayed is not justice denied.”      

Smart's family credited Lambert's podcast for keeping the case alive and said they will keep fighting for justice due to the split verdict.

“Our family is comforted and strengthened by the knowledge that Kristin continues to be held in the hearts and memories of many. We are forever stronger together," the family said in a statement.

Due to the nature of the evidence presented including testimony from two anonymous women claiming Paul Flores drugged and raped them, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe kept a closed courtroom with no cameras. She turned down motions for a mistrial from defense attorney Robert Sanger at least eight times.

Sanger said Tuesday he doesn't comment on pending cases.

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