Tuesday, August 13, 2002
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Local Woman in Killing for Hire
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed Maureen McDermott’s death sentence for hiring the men who killer her former housemate.
Accepting the prosecutor’s comparison of former nurse McDermott “to a Nazi working in the crematorium by day and listening to Mozart by night,” the justices unanimously rejected challenges to the conviction and sentence for the killing of Stephen Eldridge.
McDermott is the first woman to have her death sentence upheld by the state high court since California re-instituted capital punishment in 1977. She is among 13 women currently under sentence of death in the state, which has a Death Row population of over 600.
In the last 130 years, California has executed four women, the last in 1962. California has executed 10 men since 1992, and one inmate was executed in Missouri while under sentence of death here as well as in that state.
Eldridge, then 37, was stabbed 44 times in April 1985 in the Van Nuys home he shared with McDermott. The deputy medical examiner testified that 28 of the wounds were independently fatal.
Three months after the killing, police arrested Jimmy Luna. Luna, a former orderly at County-USC Medical Center, implicated McDermott-a friend and former co-worker-and she was arrested a month later.
Luna agreed to plead guilty and testify at McDermott’s trial. He admitted recruiting brothers Marvin Lee and Dondell Lee to assist in the murder.
The Lees received immunity for their testimony. Luna, who was on the stand for five weeks-including eight days of cross-examination-received life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Luna told the jury in Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan Haber’s courtroom that McDermott promised him $50,000-half the proceeds of the mortgage life insurance on the home they owned as joint tenants-to kill Eldridge. A month before the fatal attack, he said, he and Marvin Lee made a first attempt, but Eldridge pushed them out of the way and ran out.
In addition to having been repeatedly stabbed, Eldridge had his penis cut off-after he died, the pathologist testified. Luna said that was done at McDermott’s insistence, in order to make it appear that the killing was a “homosexual murder” that McDermott surmised the police would not vigorously investigate.
McDermott did not testify. But her trial lawyers, Joe Ingber and Carl Burkow, insisted that she had nothing to do with the killing and that Luna and the Lees could not be believed.
McDermott spoke publicly for the first time at sentencing, denying that she had anything to do with the murder and calling prosecutor Katherine Mader, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, “a power-hungry woman . . . with so little integrity.”
On appeal, the defense attacked Mader, accusing her of systematically using peremptory challenges to remove blacks from the jury and of having made improper personal attacks on the defendant in closing argument.
But Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the high court, said there was no misconduct on the prosecutor’s part.
With respect to the peremptory challenges-the prosecution removed eight black potential jurors, the defense one, leaving no African Americans on the jury-Kennard said the judge did not err in concluding that each of the challenged venire members was removed because of reservations about capital punishment and not because of race.
While each professed to be unbiased, and some actually expressed support for capital punishment, the justice explained, each had also indicated that they had doubts about imposing it under the circumstances of McDermott’s case.
Some indicated they might not support it where the special circumstances were lying in wait and killing for financial gain, others indicated their support for capital punishment in general was only lukewarm, one indicated he thought all killing was wrong, one indicated that he was not inclined to support it for a person with no prior criminal record or who did not actually participate in the killing, and one indicated she would likely vote against it if she thought the defendant could be rehabilitated.
“A prospective juror’s views about the death penalty are a permissible race- and group-neutral basis for exercising a peremptory challenge in a capital case,” Kennard said. Haber’s conclusions are entitled to deference, she added, because he made the “sincere and reasoned attempt to evaluate each stated reason as applied to each challenged juror” required by prior Supreme Court cases.
Kennard went on to say that Mader did not commit misconduct by calling the defendant “a mutation of a human being,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a “traitor,” a person who “stalked people like animals,” and someone who had “resigned from the human race.”
Those remarks “did not exceed the permissible scope of closing argument in view of the evidence presented of, among other things, defendant’s deliberate and cold-blooded planning of the killing of Stephen Eldridge,” the justice wrote.
As for the “Nazi” comment, Kennard explained, the prosecutor was not drawing a parallel between the Eldridge murder and the Holocaust, but was trying to impress on the jury the fact that a person may show “a refined sensitivity in some activities while demonstrating barbaric cruelty in others.”
The analogy was appropriate under the facts of the case, Kennard said. McDermott, who Luna testified had hired him two years before the Eldridge murder to commit the brutal beating of a home health care worker so that she could get his job, had been shown “to be both a caring and competent nurse and a person capable of plotting a brutal murder,” the justice said.
McDermott was represented on appeal by Steffan Imhoff of Del Mar-who said in a statement yesterday that his client was “an innocent woman who received an unfair trial”-and Verna Wefald of Pasadena. Deputy Attorney General G. Tracey Letteau argued for the prosecution.
The case is People v. McDermott, 02 S.O.S. 4176.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company