Thursday, March 25, 2004
High Court to Review Ruling Granting New Trial in Officer’s Slaying
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The state Supreme Court yesterday agreed to review a ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal, which granted a new trial to the convicted killer of a Los Angeles police officer.
Justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, voted unanimously to consider the case of Catarino Gonzalez Jr., sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of Filbert Cuesta.
Cuesta died in August 1998, after being ambushed by a gunman who shot at his patrol car when he and partner Richard Gabaldon responded to a noisy party in the Crenshaw district.
Several gang members were at the party, and Cuesta was hit in the back of the head as he sat in the patrol car while he and Gabaldon waited for backup units to arrive.
Gonzalez, a party guest, was arrested three days later and at first denied shooting Cuesta. He confessed after two interrogations and a polygraph exam, but claimed that he “was just shooting” at the car with no intent to kill anyone.
Gonzalez was convicted three years ago of first degree murder with special circumstances of killing a peace officer, lying in wait, and murder to avoid arrest, and of the attempted murder of Gabaldon.
In addition to the life-without-parole sentence, he received consecutive terms of 25 years to life for using a firearm to commit the murder, 15 years to life for attempted murder, and 20 years for using a firearm in the course of the attempted murder.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry admitted the confession over the objections of defense counsel, who argued that police had ignored Gonzalez’s request to speak to a lawyer.
But Justice Paul Boland, in an unpublished opinion for the appeals court’s Div. Eight, said the police violated the defendant’s right to counsel by not placing him in contact with a lawyer after, at the conclusion of the first interrogation, Gonzalez said “if for any little thing you guys are going to charge me, I want to talk to a public defender too, for any little thing.”
A reasonable officer would have understood that to be a request for counsel, Boland said. In contrast with the trial judge, who found the statement ambiguous and said Gonzalez had sufficient experience with the police to understand how to invoke the right to counsel if that was what he wanted to do, the justice said that “[a]t a minimum, the detectives should have asked appellant whether he meant he wanted to consult an attorney if the police were going to keep him in custody.”
The admission of Gonzalez’s subsequent statements was prejudicial, Boland explained, because without them, the case would have hinged on shaky eyewitness identifications and circumstantial evidence that might not have persuaded jurors to reject the alibi offered by the defendant.
Gonzalez testified that he was inside the house when he heard the shots, and that he then ran to the back, went through a gage and over a fence, and ran to his sister’s house. He was afraid of an encounter with the police, he claimed, because people told him that officers were looking for him because he had been seen painting graffiti, and he was facing a five-year prison term for probation violation.
Presiding Justice Candace Cooper and Justice Laurence Rubin concurred in the opinion.
The high court yesterday also agreed to take up Johnson v. Ford Motor Co., a case challenging the way punitive damage awards are reviewed in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal, in an unpublished opinion last November by Justice Steven Vartabedian, reduced a punitive damage award for failure to make required consumer-protection disclosures from $10 million to $53,435, which was three times the compensatory damages.
The court said the reduction was mandated by State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell (2003) 538 U.S. 408.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company