By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Southern California man accused of beating his wife to death early on Christmas Day 2011 and later propping her body up on a couch while his two young stepdaughters opened holiday presents was convicted on Wednesday of second-degree murder.
William Wallace, 39, of Anaheim, who spent time in jail for a previous episode of domestic violence, faces a prison sentence of 15 years to life after an Orange County Superior Court jury found him guilty in the death of his spouse, Zazell Preston, 26.
Sentencing has been set for June 4.
The victim's two daughters from a previous marriage, aged 3 and 8, and the couple's 7-week-old son were in the family's apartment in Anaheim, south of Los Angeles, at the time their mother was slain, prosecutors said.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer, in a statement announcing the verdict, called the killing "a heart-wrenching tragedy."
"The heartbreak is only exacerbated by the fact that her children witness much of the violence and were forced to celebrate Christmas in the presence of their dead mother," he added.
Authorities determined Preston had died around 1 a.m. on Christmas Day, but prosecutors told jurors that Wallace videotaped his stepchildren opening their presents later that morning with the mother's body arranged on the sofa in front of them, according to the Los Angeles City News Service (CNS).
The defense team countered that Wallace did not intend to kill his wife, and that at least some of the multiple head injuries she suffered resulted from repeated falls she took following a night of Christmas Eve drinking by the couple. His attorneys said there was no proof which of Preston's injuries were fatal and precisely how they were caused, CNS reported.
Jurors were instructed to consider first- and second-degree murder as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter in their deliberations, which began on Tuesday, CNS said.
CNS, citing prosecutors' statements in court, said Wallace had served 18 days in jail after previously pleading guilty to beating the victim and threatening to kill her in 2008.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)