SAN DIEGO -- A North Carolina man who raped and murdered a 79-year-old woman in her Normal Heights home more than three decades ago was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Kevin Thomas Ford, 63, was convicted by a San Diego jury last month for the May 20, 1987, murder of Grace Hayden, who was strangled and smothered during the rape, according to Deputy District Attorney Valerie Summers.
The prosecutor said Ford worked as a driver for older medical patients in San Diego and had driven Hayden two days before her body was found on the floor of her bedroom.
DNA on the victim's body, as well as a fingerprint found on her stovetop, led to Ford's 2018 arrest in North Carolina.
Jurors deliberated for about five hours before convicting Ford of murder and special circumstance allegations of murder in the commission of rape and murder in the commission of a burglary.
Ford claimed to have had consensual sex with Hayden on or around the day she was killed, but maintained at trial and the sentencing hearing that someone else killed her after he left her home.
At Friday's sentencing, Ford addressed the court, saying he sympathized with Hayden and her family and couldn't imagine if something similar had befallen his mother or grandmother.
"I can't imagine what it's like, having to go through what Grace Hayden went through. It must have been a night of sheer terror," Ford said. "But the police got the wrong man. Whoever did this is either dead or still running around free. I didn't do it. God knows I didn't do it."
San Diego County Superior Court Judge Louis R. Hanoian expressed his disappointment with Ford's denial of the crime, calling the killing "despicable" and "heinous," prior to imposing the life without parole sentence.
"You have to be the most unlucky person on the planet, maybe the most unlucky person who has ever lived on this planet, to have supposedly engaged in consensual sexual intercourse with a 79-year-old invalid woman, left your biological material in her, and then within -- 12 hours? -- that woman is found dead as the result of a rape murder that you didn't do?" Hanoian said. "The jury didn't believe it. I didn't believe it. I don't believe it."
Summers told jurors in her closing argument that injuries to Hayden's face and the back of her head indicated a "horrible struggle." The victim asphyxiated from a dislodged lower denture, which is believed to have come loose during the attack.
"The final moments of this woman's life, which should have been in peace, were violent, sexually violent, and just nothing but pure terror," the prosecutor said.
Summers said the defendant told investigators he didn't know Hayden, then testified at trial that he had lied because he didn't want to get in trouble.
He also wrote a letter to his wife stating he thought he might be arrested someday, but "I didn't know how good their evidence was," according to Summers, who told the jury, "Well, now he knows, as do you."
Summers also called Ford's claim of consensual sex a "ridiculous story," particularly given Hayden's mobility issues.
Defense attorney Courtney Cutter alleged the prosecution ignored the presence of a second man's DNA on vaginal swabs of the victim. The identity of the second DNA contributor remains unknown.
The attorney also argued that Ford's fingerprints were nowhere else to be found in Hayden's home, not even on items the perpetrator apparently rifled through to steal, including Hayden's purse and pill bottles.