Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, March 21, 2003


Page 1


Court Upholds Death Sentence in Killing of Women Over Drug Debt


By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday denied relief to a San Mateo County man sentenced to die after he was convicted of the murders of two women who were abducted after being lured to the defendant’s apartment.

The three-judge panel rejected claims that Donald Beardslee, who testified against his co-defendants at two preliminary hearings, received ineffective assistance from the lawyer who urged him to cooperate with law enforcement.

Judge Sidney Thomas, writing for the panel, said there was so much evidence against him that cooperation was reasonable as part of a strategy of trying to avoid the death penalty.

Beardslee was convicted in 1984 of the 1981 murders of Stacy Benjamin and Patty Geddling. While the extent of his involvement was disputed, Beardslee admitted that he cooperated in a plan to lure Benjamin to the apartment so that Beardslee’s roommate and two other people could force her to return money she had received as advance payment for drugs that were never delivered.

Woman Shot

Benjamin came to the apartment with her friend, Geddling. After one of the others in the group—Frank Rutherford, a man with a reputation for violence who sometimes worked as a collector of drug debts—shot Geddling in the shoulder, apparently by accident, she was driven from the apartment in a van driven by one of the others, with Beardslee as a passenger.

Geddling was told she was being taken to a hospital, but the driver turned off the main road and Beardslee shot Geddling twice. He later claimed that she was already dead and that he shot her only to impress Rutherford.

Beardslee was then driven to Rutherford’s residence, where Benjamin was being held. Told that Geddling was at a hospital, Benjamin got into a vehicle driven by Beardslee and was taken to a deserted spot where she was strangled by Rutherford and had her throat slit by Beardslee.

Geddling’s body was found the next day. A piece of paper with his telephone number on it led police to Beardslee, who first denied any connection to Geddling but eventually provided a detailed account of the killings and led police to Benjamin’s body.

Beardslee’s court-appointed attorney, Douglas Gray, advised him that there was little chance of acquittal, and pursued a strategy—which Beardslee later claimed to be unauthorized—of cooperation with the authorities. He informally arranged to have Beardslee’s case put off until after the trials of the other defendants.

Beardslee’s roommate pled guilty to second degree murder in the death of Geddling. Rutherford pled guilty to first degree murder in the death of Benjamin and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

William Forrester, who drove the car in which Geddling was taken to her death, was acquitted.

As Beardslee’s trial date approached, he informed Gray he had decided to plead not guilty and go to trial, rather then plead guilty and go directly to the penalty phase as Gray had expected. Gray said he was surprised and obtained permission to withdraw.

Prosecutors offered Beardslee’s testimony at the preliminary hearings for Rutherford and Forrester as evidence against him. They also brought in evidence that he had killed a woman in Missouri years earlier by stabbing her in the throat with a knife.

Prior Murder

That evidence led to an unusual conflict. While investigating the Missouri case, which resulted in Beardslee being convicted of murder—he was on parole at the time of the San Mateo killings—the prosecutor obtained an admission by the arresting officer that he had questioned Beardslee in violation of the defense lawyer’s explicit instructions and lied about it at the ensuing suppression hearing.

After disclosing that discovery to the defense, the prosecutor decided that he would not offer the Missouri conviction in evidence, but would rely on physical evidence obtained from the Missouri crime scene as well as Beardslee’s admission to the Missouri murder during his testimony at Rutherford’s preliminary hearing.

Judge Robert Miller denied the defense motion to exclude all evidence of the Missouri case.

The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction unanimously and the death sentence by a 5-2 majority with the late Justices Stanley Mosk and Allen Broussard dissenting.

Broussard argued that the police misconduct in the Missouri case tainted all evidence derived from the improper questioning. Mosk agreed, and also insisted that it was unfair to sentence Beardslee to death when his co-defendants all received prison terms and his guilt was not disproportionate to theirs.

In the habeas corpus proceedings, Beardslee raised the same arguments, as well as contending that Gray rendered ineffective assistance by advising Beardslee to cooperate.

But Thomas, writing for the appellate panel, said Gray had “little other choice” but to pursue what the judge acknowledged was a long-shot strategy.

“...Beardslee presents no alternative strategy that reasonable counsel would have chosen. The judge hearing the motion to substitute counsel said he would have adopted the same strategy. “

The introduction of the Missouri evidence, the judge went on to say, was not fundamentally unfair. Nor was it prejudicial, he said, because the evidence that the jury heard would have been discovered by the Missouri authorities even if the improper questioning had never taken place.

Thomas also rejected the proportionality argument, saying there is no federal constitutional requirement that co-defendants be similarly punished.


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