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An appeals court panel Thursday upheld the murder conviction and sentence of life without parole for a former North Carolina resident in the slaying of a 79-year-old woman in her Normal Heights home more than three decades ago.

Kevin Thomas Ford was convicted by a San Diego jury for the May 20, 1987, murder of Grace Hayden, who was smothered with a pillow while she was raped, according to prosecutors.

Deputy District Attorney Valerie Summers alleged at trial that 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.

On appeal, Ford contended that the evidence was insufficient to support an intent to kill necessary for the jury’s findings on the special circumstance allegations, and that the evidence suggested at most, an accidental death. A three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that the state of the victim’s body, including certain wounds she sustained, supported an inference from the jury that the killing was intentional.

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 was believed to have come loose during the attack.

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 the sentencing hearing, 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 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.”

–City News Service