Crime & Justice

Man gets life in prison for murdering homeless man by setting him on fire

A man who admitted murdering a transient by setting him on fire near downtown Los Angeles a few months after being fired from his job for attacking the same victim was sentenced today to life in prison without parole.

Ben Matthew Martin confronted John Robert McGraham on Oct. 9, 2008, threw a bucket of gasoline on him and then lit an emergency flare and tossed it at the 55-year-old victim, who was immediately engulfed in flames, according to Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose.

Martin, now 31, had been fired from his job at a local barbershop three months earlier, after his supervisor learned from a customer that he had chased McGraham down the street and repeatedly struck him with a bag of towels and kicked him in the back, according to the prosecutor's sentencing memorandum.

"He was fired as a direct result of the owner finding out about the incident," the prosecutor said outside court after the sentencing.

Of the victim's death, Rose said, "I can't think of a more horrible way to die."

Martin's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Regina A. Laughney, said, "It's a very tragic case for all sides."

In her sentencing memorandum, Martin's attorney wrote, "While not an `excuse,' Mr. Martin's well-recognized and documented history of psychological illness is, in part, an explanation for the tragic events of October 9, 2008."

Martin's former supervisor described him as "slow learning" and "not normal," and a co-worker said he was "not right ... mentally," she wrote.

The victim's sister, Susanne McGraham Paisley, told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry A. Bork that "many people saw my brother as a homeless person, a bum."

"This is how we remember him," she said, showing the judge photos of her older brother, who she called "kind" and "thoughtful."

"My brother had a life and he was a human being," the victim's sister said.

She said she wondered what was going through his mind as he was being approached by Martin.

"I suspect he wouldn't have resisted because he was largely complacent," she said. "... In Ben's mind, he must have seen my brother as something less than human."

She said she never wanted to see her brother's killer sentenced to death – a punishment he could have potentially faced if he had gone to trial.

"I think he deserves to live. So did John," she told the judge.

David McGraham – who called the crime that ended his brother's life "terribly tragic" – said he wishes Martin could have seen that the two men "shared the same humanity." He also said his heart goes out to Martin's mother, who was in the courtroom to hear her son's punishment.

Martin was awaiting a hearing to determine if there was enough evidence to require him to stand trial when he pleaded guilty March 29 to one count each of murder, torture and arson causing great bodily injury.

Martin also admitted the special circumstance allegations of murder during the commission of torture and lying in wait.

The crime occurred in the 3500 block of West Third Street, near Vermont Avenue – just around the corner from the barber shop.

Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge said after the killing that the victim was mentally ill and living on the streets, where he was known to hundreds of people as a harmless person.

Martin had two prior felony convictions for embezzlement, along with two misdemeanor convictions, and was in the state's DNA database. He was linked to the crime through DNA analysis of a pair of black gloves discovered by police in the street where the attack began, Rose said.

He was arrested in January 2009 in Rancho Mirage by detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide Division.

At the defense's request, the judge recommended to the state Department of Corrections that Martin be sent to a prison in the Riverside County area, where his family lives.