Christopher Lee, right, is escorted into the courtroom for a hearing on Tuesday in Joshua Tree, Calif. Lee is charged with murder in the death of Erin Corwin, a fellow Marine's pregnant wife. (Richard Lui/AP)
A former Marine who is accused of killing his neighbor’s wife, Erin Corwin, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.
Christopher Lee, 24, made his first appearance in a California courtroom on Tuesday after being extradited from Alaska. He wore a gray prisoner’s jumpsuit and had a full beard and finely combed hair. The hearing lasted only a few minutes, and Lee barely spoke.
Lee’s attorney, David Kaloyanides, pleaded not guilty on his client’s behalf. During a brief interview outside the courthouse, Kaloyanides said he expected Lee’s court case to last “a long time.”
“It’s going to take a while, in a case of this magnitude, to get any information from the DA’s office, so we can evaluate the evidence,” Kaloyanides said. “There are a lot of different angles to investigate, and (we need) to see what they have.”
Lee’s wife, Nichole, did not attend the arraignment hearing. Corwin’s husband, Marine Cpl. Jonathan Corwin, sat quietly in the back of the room with his father, Tom.
Lee is schedule to return to court for another hearing on Sept. 16.
Lee was arrested in Anchorage on Aug. 16, shortly after Erin Corwin’s body was recovered from an abandoned mine shaft in the open desert southeast of Twentynine Palms, Calif. Corwin, 19, a Marine wife who is originally from Tennessee, had been missing since June 28. Detectives had been investigating Lee for weeks but were not prepared to arrest him until her body was found.
According to court documents, authorities believe that Lee and Corwin were having an affair, and that Lee was afraid that his wife might discover his infidelity.
Lee’s arrest warrant said that he searched online for advice on how to dispose of a body, and investigators have found tire tracks and ammunition that tie the murder suspect to the missing woman.
Corwin’s cause of death has not been released.
In addition to murder, Lee has been charged with a special circumstance of “lying in wait.” This allegation, which argues that Lee planned Corwin’s death and lured her into a trap, makes the suspect eligible for the death penalty, if convicted.
“We need to see where (that allegation) comes from,” Kaloyanides said. “I’m not really sure what evidence supports that. I’m not really sure what evidence supports the claim that Mr. Lee has done anything, other than him knowing the victim.”
Kaloyanides had represented Lee since July 4, when he was arrested for possession of a potato gun, which detectives claimed was an illegal destructive device. Detectives found the potato gun while searching for clues to Corwin’s fate, then held Lee briefly before letting him go.
On Tuesday, Kaloyanides implied that he felt this initial arrest was questionable.
“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who has ever been arrested and held on possession of a potato gun.”