Friday, July 9, 2004
Ninth Circuit Overturns Death Sentence, Faults Review Conducted by California Supreme Court
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ordered a new penalty trial for a death row inmate from Kern County, saying the state Supreme Court erred in holding that what it acknowledged to be error in the penalty phase was harmless.
Judge Raymond C. Fisher, writing for the court, said that Ronald L. Sanders was fairly convicted of the murder of Janice Allen with robbery-murder and witness-killing special circumstances.
He rejected Sanders’ contention that Hispanics were underrepresented in the Kern County jury pool at the time of trial, saying the statistics offered to support the argument failed to account for the fact that a portion of the adult Hispanic population consisted of aliens or persons otherwise unqualified for jury service.
But the death sentence must be overturned, the judge said, rejecting the conclusion of since-retired Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas that erroneous consideration of two additional special circumstances was “benign.”
Fisher explained that in states, such as California, that determine whether to apply the death penalty by “weighing” aggravating and mitigating circumstances, a death sentence based upon a combination of properly and improperly considered circumstances must be carefully scrutinized.
If it determines that some of the circumstances were improperly considered, Fisher wrote, the state appellate court must remand for resentencing, independently reweigh the circumstances, or conduct a “proper” harmless-error analysis.
That did not happen, Fisher said, in the case of Sanders, who has been on Death Row since 1982. Prosecutors said Allen’s murder grew out of a dispute between her drug-dealing boyfriend and two of his customers.
Brenda Maxwell, one of the customers, testified that she, her aunt Donna Thompson, and Sanders hatched a plan to rob the drug dealer, Dale Boender, and steal his cocaine. The plan went awry when the dealer escaped after being hit with a piece of pool cue by Sanders.
Maxwell said she and Sanders then enlisted a friend, John Cebreros, for a plan to attack Boender in his apartment. Boender testified that Sanders and Cebreros rushed into the apartment, knocked him down, bound and blindfolded both him and Allen, and then knocked him unconscious.
Boender was found later that night, his skull fractured and lying in a pool of blood. There was testimony that some marijuana had been taken from the apartment.
Allen was found in a bedroom, dead from a head wound inflicted with a blunt, heavy object.
Maxwell testified in exchange for immunity. Sanders and Cebreros were tried together, the first trial ending in a hung jury. At the second trial, both were found guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances, but the prosecution only sought the death penalty for Sanders.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that Sanders had been convicted of several robberies more than a decade before the murders.
The jury found four special circumstances applicable—robbery-murder; burglary-murder; witness killing; and that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel.
But the high court ruled that the burglary-murder finding was contrary to law, because the judge’s instructions erroneously allowed jurors to find the allegation true even if Cebreros was the one who decided to rob and/or kill and Sanders’ only criminal intent at the time of entry was to commit an assault.
And the “heinous, atrocious and cruel” finding was tossed out because the high court, after Sanders was sentenced, concluded in another case that the language was unconstitutionally vague.
Fisher noted that at the time of the California high court ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court’s standards for review of death sentences from “weighing” states were still evolving. It later became clear, Fisher explained, that the consideration of an improper special circumstance is reversible error unless harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The California court never used the words ‘harmless error’ or ‘reasonable doubt’ in analyzing the effect of removing the special circumstance,” the judge wrote. “Moreover, it appears that the California court erroneously believed that it could apply the rule of Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983)—which is applicable only to nonweighing states—and uphold the verdict despite the invalidation of two special circumstances because it was upholding other special circumstances.”
Applying its own harmless-error analysis, the court concluded that if the only special circumstances had been robbery-murder and witness killing, jurors might have spared Sanders the death penalty, since his prior crimes were not recent and/or because jurors might have felt it unfair that he be executed when Cebreros was not and Maxwell, without whose assistance the murder might never have occurred, was not even charged.
Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson and Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld concurred.
The case is Sanders v. Woodford, 01-99017.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company