Even for Los Angeles, a city inured to violence, the double slaying of drug dealer Arthur Davodian and his girlfriend Kimberley Crayton was exceptional in its brutality.
It seemed evident to the detectives who surveyed his apartment in the northern LA hills that Davodian, 22, was murdered first - stabbed 17 times in the body - before his head was severed with a butcher's precision and removed. It was found ten days later, wrapped in a carrier bag in the front yard of a Masonic lodge, by a schoolboy who was puzzled by its overpowering smell. Crayton, 21 - who suffered terrible wounds on her hands and arms - had locked herself in their bedroom while her lover died. But the killer or killers smashed down the door and dispatched her with equal ferocity. Only her baby Kaylee, aged 14 months, survived.
This summer, nearly six years after his arrest, Neil Revill, a semi-blind dyslexic from Consett in Co Durham, will face a jury in the downtown LA courthouse which once hosted the trial of O.J. Simpson. He is accused of both murders and the prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. His face pasty and drawn, Revill, 33, sat in a white breeze-block room in the North Los Angeles County maximum security jail last week and gave an exclusive interview to The Observer, conducted via a video link. 'All these years I've kept thinking that something was about to happen: that there would be some new piece of evidence that would make them drop the charges and set me free,' he said. 'Maybe that's a delusion.'
Revill, who has no previous convictions and has always protested his innocence, spoke in the tones of middle England, his voice betraying few signs of his years in America or of his origins in the north east of England. His emotions surfaced visibly only once, when he described the effect of his being charged with a capital murder on his relationship with his mother, Brenda, and his father, Graham, a retired RAF mechanic. 'One good thing has come of this,' he said. 'We've become a lot closer. They visit whenever they can and they're going to be here for the trial, though it's expected to last four months. We were never a very close family. Now we are.'
This week Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based human rights group, Reprieve, will write to Tony Blair, asking him to support a new petition by attorneys from the LA Public Defender office asking the prosecutors to drop their insistence on the death penalty. They will point out that the case against Revill is circumstantial and far from conclusive. There were no eyewitnesses, nor a confession, no murder weapon has been recovered, and while there were samples of Revill's DNA at the crime scene he has always said that Davodian was a friend, and that he went to his apartment as an invited guest on the night before the killings.
Meanwhile, evidence has emerged that Davodian was a police informant, whose information led to the arrest of powerful figures in the Armenian and Israeli mafias - gangs whose signature punishment for snitches is decapitation.
Neil Revill and his alleged victim Kimberley Crayton shared an unfortunate characteristic. Both had been lured from secure, law-abiding backgrounds to the deeper reaches of the LA drug scene, seduced by its illusory glamour. Neither really belonged. Crayton, a niece of the jazz singer Al Jarreau, was brought up amid the sunny affluence of Orange County, south of LA. Having married her high-school sweetheart and given birth to his child, she abruptly changed direction, abandoning her husband to use substantial quantities of crack cocaine and the still more powerful crystal methamphetamine. When she died, she had been living with Davodian for only a month - the last of several brief relationships that revolved around drugs.
Revill's trajectory was longer and less direct. He spent several years in Germany, where his father was based: later, when he turned 18 and his father was posted to Cyprus, he elected to stay with his grandfather, a retired miner, in Consett. His dyslexia meant that his only GCSE was in metalwork, while his blindness from birth in his right eye deprived him of fulfilling his dream of following his father into the RAF. For 18 months he lived with a woman in Sunderland, working in kitchen and bathroom sales. Finally, he said, in the summer of 1996 and at the age of 23: 'I began to get bored and kind of upped sticks. I bought a ticket to Amsterdam and hitch-hiked to Munich.' He stayed at a hostel, securing free board and lodging in return for a little work. Already in residence was a woman he would shortly marry, a slim American law student on vacation.
Revill's ex-wife, now a partner in an international LA law firm, agreed to talk to The Observer on condition of anonymity. 'I still care a lot about him, and I guess I always will,' she said. 'Even when we separated, I made sure we stayed friends. He was always a good guy. I can't believe he is capable of these murders, physically or psychologically. He was always so gentle. He watched out for me. And Neil is a little clumsy. He just doesn't have the kind of precision you'd need with a knife to be able to sever a man's head.' Davodian, meanwhile, was a muscley, tattooed strongman. At the time of the murders, Neil, who is six foot three, weighed only 11 stone. 'Quite frankly,' his former wife said, 'if he had attacked Davodian, it should have been Neil who ended up on the slab.'
If ever a marriage were made from opposites, this was it. While his driven, focused partner completed her studies at law school, Revill made money as a rock concert roadie and as a guinea pig for drug trials. Over the following year he made several trips to visit her in America and eventually asked her to marry him. She said yes. Her parents laid on a grand wedding at their home in Athens, Georgia in November 1997. Revill and his wife lived there too for more than a year. In December 1998, the couple moved to LA - where their relationship started to fall apart.
From the beginning, Revill and his wife dabbled in the club and drug scene. 'We were just experimenting. No one we knew was really hardcore back then,' she said. 'It was very rare we'd ever do drugs outside the weekend. But it was a big underground scene; a lot of new places were opening up. We had a lot of fun.' The problem was that 'if you know what you're doing, LA is a little playground. But if you don't, you can easily get lost. That's what happened to Neil'.
While she hunted for the perfect attorney's job, he worked in a delicatessen and later sold mobile phones. When his wife began an affair, they split up in the spring of 1999, only to be reconciled before Christmas. But 'the spark and the trust had gone,' Revill said, and they separated for good the following May. For a while he did well on his own: promoted to phone store manager, he got his own apartment, a car and a high credit rating. Two months later the US Immigration Service started asking questions about the status of his marriage, and whether he was still entitled to work. 'That was when my world crumbled,' Revill said. 'I lost my job and I had a broken heart. I went on a party rampage. I took out four new credit cards, borrowed on them to the limit and blew the lot on drugs. I was already using ecstasy and speed and had tried crystal meth in small quantities. I started going on four-day binges, immersing myself in the club scene. When the money ran out, the only thing I thought I could do was to start to sell drugs.'
Before long, Revill was friends with Davodian, who lived in a yellow concrete condominium at 10149 Commerce Avenue in Tujunga, a scruffy, working-class neighbourhood beset by gangs. Four months before the murders, Revill was arrested, driving some of Davodian's drugs to a dealer who lived across town in Glendale. He was bailed and told to expect a sentence of six months. 'I thought, OK, I'll do my time, get deported, and then the party's going to be over: it's time to move on and grow up,' said Revill. 'What worried me most was how to tell my parents.'
Davodian and Crayton were murdered in the early afternoon of 11 October, 2001. Revill was arrested on 22 November - the fourth anniversary of his wedding.
In his 20 years as an LA public defender, Doug Goldstein, Revill's lead lawyer, has never known a case like Revill's. 'Usually death penalty trials are about mitigation, trying to get them life,' he said. 'The evidence of guilt is pretty clear-cut: there'll be eyewitnesses, a confession, DNA and fingerprints. This is different. It's like a Chandler mystery. And I've never had a client like Neil, either. He's pleasant, polite and articulate; the kind of guy you'd invite home to dinner. He's goofy, kind of humble. It's very hard to imagine he did something like this.'
The extraordinary delay in bringing the case to trial has arisen because new evidence has regularly been discovered suggesting that someone else - probably at least two people - killed Crayton and Davodian. Each new disclosure has required further investigations by both prosecution and defence while the scientific evidence - which turns on the exact interpretation of DNA from the crime scene - is extremely complex. There was blood in Davodian's flat from at least two unknown males.
And long after Revill was charged, documents emerged that showed Davodian had made dangerous enemies. Four months before his murder, he had been busted but made a deal with prosecutors known as 'snitch three, go free,' which meant that, if he gave information that led to three successful prosecutions, he would avoid going to prison. One of the three was Revill. There was also at least one much bigger fish - Andre Bolandi, a leader of a gang called Armenian Power, and Davodian's main supplier. Thanks to his information, Bolandi is now serving a long sentence. Other witnesses interviewed by police have said that Davodian snitched on drug kingpins still further up the supply chain, including a leading figure in LA's Israeli mafia.
Davodian's neighbours have cast further doubt on whether Revill is the murderer. One, who lived in the house opposite, says he heard men shouting at Davodian a day or two before the murders, including a threat to cut off his head. Michael Gregorian, who discovered the bodies, says he saw two Armenians wearing uniforms from a carpet-cleaning firm leaving the building a short while earlier. No carpet cleaners had been working there officially at the time. Finally, the man who lived and worked in the flat below the room where Davodian was killed says he saw two men entering the condo and heard sounds of a struggle.
Revill said that, as the trial approaches, he is starting to feel nervous. 'All these years I feel like I've shut myself down. I've dealt with this by taking it day by day; I measure my life by the passage of each eight-hour guard shift. When I first got here, it was an enormous culture shock. Shutting myself down was the only way I could cope, especially with so many delays. But I'm still optimistic.' Revill might be home by Christmas. 'But I'm not a fool. I know I could lose and be sent to death row. And if I do, I understand what might happen.'