LAS VEGAS (AP) - A former stripper and her lover were acquitted Tuesday of murdering casino heir Ted Binion, who prosecutors say was drugged and suffocated in a plot to steal his fortune of buried silver.
Defendant Sandy Murphy trembled and wept on her lawyer's shoulder while co-defendant Rick Tabish stood and nodded as the verdicts were read.
Murphy, 32, and Tabish, 39, were found guilty of lesser charges of conspiracy to commit burglary and/or larceny, burglary and grand larceny in a plot to steal a $7 million cache of silver bars and coins Binion had buried in the desert.
Each could face up to 16 years in prison when Clark County District Judge Joseph Bonaventure sentences them Jan. 28.
The seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated fewer than four days before acquitting Murphy and Tabish on felony charges of murder, robbery and conspiracy to commit murder and/or robbery. The packed courthouse erupted in gasps when the verdicts were read.
Bonaventure, who four years ago presided over the pair's first murder trial that ended in convictions, praised the jury Tuesday.
"You came to a fair verdict in your minds. Today, you have decided to end it," he said.
Outside the courthouse, Murphy expressed relief and said she was looking forward to spending the holidays with her family in California.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," she said. "I'm a little disappointed, of course, but I'm a true believer in justice. This has definitely restored my faith in the system."
Tabish, hugging his tearful father in the courtroom, said, "This murder thing is behind me. ... we're done with it."
Tabish was to be returned to state prison on other charges, while Murphy remained free on $250,000 bond. Her lawyer, Michael Cristalli, said that after serving four years in prison, Murphy should be eligible for probation when she is sentenced.
Tabish's lawyer, Tony Serra, said his client also could released from prison in several years if the judge decides he should serve the sentences concurrently. Tabish already has been in prison for about five years.
It was the second trial for Murphy and Tabish, who were convicted in 2000 in a sensational trial that drew international attention. Tabish was sentenced to 25 years to life and Murphy 22 years to life.
Their original murder convictions were overturned on appeal by the Nevada Supreme Court, which ruled in July 2003 that Bonaventure made a mistake in not forcing prosecutors to try an extortion case against Tabish separately. Justices said the extortion evidence unfairly prejudiced the first jury.
During the six-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Murphy as Binion's greedy girlfriend who was having an affair with Tabish, a former contractor from Missoula, Mont., and a friend of Binion.
The wealthy Binion came from a prominent Las Vegas family that owned the famed downtown Binion's Horseshoe Hotel & Casino. Binion was the son of gambling legend Benny Binion, who migrated from Texas with his car trunk stuffed with cash to bankroll the dream of his own casino.
Prosecutors said Tabish and Murphy hatched a plot to kill Binion by forcing him to ingest lethal levels of heroin and the anti-depressant Xanax and then suffocating him to hasten his death. He was found dead at his home on Sept. 17, 1998.
Defense lawyers argued Binion, 55, a longtime heroin addict, died of an accidental overdose.
But the prosecution said this was no accident. Tabish was desperate to get his hands on Binion's money because his businesses were failing, and Sandy was afraid the casino executive was going to write her out of his will.
Two days after Binion's death, Tabish was arrested as he stole coins and silver out of an underground vault he had installed for Binion in rural Pahrump.
In a news conference shortly after the verdicts were read, jurors said they believed Tabish and Murphy decided to steal Binion's fortune after his death, not before.
They also said the number of experts who testified that Binion hadn't been murdered swayed their decision, creating reasonable doubt whether Binion had died at the hands of the pair.
The jurors also said they didn't believe Binion had died of burking or forced suffocation.
"It did not seem like murder," one juror said.
Jurors also said police botched the case in the early stages by declaring originally that Binion had committed suicide. Because of that conclusion, jurors said the crime scene hadn't been secured and the chain of evidence was broken.
"There was a lot they should have done that they didn't," another juror said.
Outside the courthouse, Serra said he never had any doubts about whether Tabish had killed Binion.
"I took the case because I thought Rick was innocent."