Thursday, December 27, 2001
Ninth Circuit Orders New Trial for Death Row Inmate in Girlfriend’s Killing
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Kern County man who has spent 16 years on death row for killing his girlfriend and her son, allegedly so they would not inform the police of his drug dealing, won a new trial yesterday.
A divided Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that Robert F. Garceau was deprived of a fair trial when the judge erroneously told jurors that they could consider evidence of other crimes “for any purpose.”
Maureen Bautista and her 14-year-old son Telesforo were stabbed to death in September 1984. Six months later, Susan Rambo—the widow of a drug dealer who had been recently murdered himself—led police to the corpses which were buried in her backyard.
Garceau was convicted of murdering Greg Rambo, who had allegedly helped him bury the Bautistas, and sentenced to 33 years to life imprisonment. Prosecutors then introduced evidence of the Rambo murder at Garceau’s trial for the Bautista murders.
They also presented testimony from Susan Rambo—under grant of immunity—that she helped dig the hole in her backyard, where a dresser containing the Bautistas’ bodies was buried. Several other prosecution witnesses were implicated in covering up the Bautista murders or the Rambo murder, or in the drug business.
Jurors were told by Kern Superior Court Judge Lewis King that they could consider the evidence of the Rambo murder for any purpose, “including but not limited to…[Garceau’s] character or any trait of his character” or “conduct on a specific occasion.”
Garceau argued on appeal that the instruction violated due process by inviting jurors to treat the Rambo killing as proof of a propensity to commit murder. The California Supreme Court agreed the instruction was wrong, but said it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger of the Eastern District of California agreed. But Judge A. Wallace Tashima, writing yesterday for the panel, said the error was prejudicial since jurors might otherwise not have been willing to convict on the testimony of drug dealers.
Judge Sidney Thomas agreed, but Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain dissented.
The dissenting jurist argued that the error was harmless, since jurors had the opportunity to weigh the credibility of the prosecution witnesses and were entitled to consider the evidence of the Rambo murder—at least for the limited purpose of establishing motive, intent or plan.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company