Tuesday, February 3, 2004
Supreme Court Rules in Death Penalty Case:
Jurors’ Talks With Pastors Do Not Require Sentence Reversal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Two jurors’ conversations about capital punishment with their pastors during the penalty phase of a murder trial do not compel reversal of the death sentence, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 4-3 decision, the justices affirmed Joseph Danks’ death sentence for the murder by stabbing of his elderly cellmate at Tehachapi State Prison, Walter Holt.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, writing for the majority, said the jurors’ brief conversations with their spiritual advisers, as well as the subsequent reading of bible verses by one of them during deliberations, were harmless.
Both jurors said they had already made up their minds to vote for the death penalty, there was no evidence that any other juror was swayed by the brief comments they made after talking to the pastors, and the evidence in support of the death penalty was “compelling,” Brown wrote.
Pair of Dissents
Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Carlos Moreno and Chief Justice Ronald M. George joined in a pair of dissenting opinions arguing that the two women committed “egregious” juror misconduct requiring a new penalty trial.
Danks was already serving 156 years to life imprisonment for the 1987 stabbing murders of six transients in Koreatown and Santa Monica. He killed Holt less than a month after arriving at Tehachapi to serve his sentence for the murders.
Danks admitted the earlier killings as part of a plea deal. But he later claimed he had not committed them, and said he killed Holt to find out what it was really like to commit murder.
He has a history of involvement in stabbing incidents, including one in which he lunged at his lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Larry Rivetz, with a makeshift knife during his trial for the transient murders.
With several incriminating statements by the defendant, who was the only person with access to the victim at the time of the killing, the guilt phase of the 1990 trial for the Tehachapi murder was relatively brief. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence regarding the earlier murders, and of several other incidents of violence and weapons possession.
Corrections officers testified that stabbing weapons were found in Danks’ cell on three occasions, that he poured hot coffee on and struck an officer, that he had set a fire in his cell, and that he had stabbed another inmate with a piece of metal, creating a wound an inch deep over the victim’s eye.
There was also evidence that he had stabbed a fellow inmate with a pencil while at Atascadero State Hospital, and told a witness he was upset the victim hadn’t died as a result.
The defense argued for a life-without-parole sentence, presenting evidence that Danks had a difficult upbringing, including family instability and abuse; that he had abused drugs and engaged in bizarre and paranoid behavior, claiming to be persecuted by several individuals, including former President Ronald Reagan; that he had been diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia and an antisocial personality disorder; and that his illness went into remission when he was on medication.
Jurors, however, returned a death penalty verdict. Prior to sentencing, the defense moved for a new trial, presenting declarations from the two jurors.
One of them, identified only as K.A., said she felt a great deal of stress during the penalty phase, and told her husband about it. Her husband suggested it would be appropriate to talk to their pastor “because a pastor is of a higher authority,” she wrote in her declaration.
The pastor told her there was nothing in the Christian faith that precludes the death penalty, and cited several verses of scripture, which her husband copied and which she later read to her fellow jurors.
The verses, from Numbers, include the advice that:
“If a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or if anyone has a stone in his hand that could kill, and he strikes someone so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death.”
The other juror, B.P., said she told her pastor she was on a murder jury and had decided to vote for the death penalty. The pastor, she said, responded:
“There is no place in the Bible that takes the law out of the Bible. If you are sitting on the case I’m thinking you are sitting on, if I was in your shoes, I would not hesitate to give him the death penalty.”
Rejecting the defense claims that jurors based their death penalty on their religious views rather than on the law and the evidence, Brown said there was “no substantial likelihood either that the Bible passages or the conversations with the pastors were inherently prejudicial or that they resulted in any juror’s actual bias.”
She was joined by Justices Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, and Kathryn M. Werdegar.
Kennard, dissenting, cited a Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case in which a Virginia death penalty verdict was overturned because the owner of a restaurant where four jurors were having lunch advised them that “they ought to fry the son of a bitch.”
Danks had an even stronger case for reversal than the Virginia defendant, Kennard said.
“For advice and comfort in difficult matters of life and death, many people turn to their pastor, whose views are likely to carry far more weight than those of a stranger encountered in a restaurant,” she wrote.
The case is People v. Danks, 04 S.O.S. 543.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company