S.C. Affirms Death Sentence in Rape, Killing of Stepdaughter
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a Fresno County man convicted of raping, sodomizing and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter.
It was the second time that Donald Griffin had received the maximum sentence for killing Janice Kelly Wilson in 1979. The original sentence, imposed after a 1980 trial, was overturned on appeal.
The state high court upheld Griffin’s convictions on all counts, along with the special-circumstance findings that the murder occurred during the commission of the felonies of rape, sodomy, and lewd conduct, in its 1988 opinion. But it ordered a retrial as to the penalty because the jury had been told that the governor had the power to commute a life sentence, but was not told that a death sentence could also be commuted.
That instruction was required by the 1978 death penalty initiative but was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1984. Griffin’s 1992 retrial resulted in the same penalty verdict and sentence.
Griffin has admitted the murder, but denied having committed a sexual assault. Prosecutors and defense lawyers presented conflicting expert opinion as to whether rape and/or sodomy had been committed, and the defense suggested that it was frustration over marital difficulty and the recent loss of his job that led Griffin to kill the girl.
Griffin had originally claimed, before the body was found, that he had taken the youngster to his parents’ house for a visit and that she had left the house with another girl and not returned. Her body was found by a motorist on a road north of Kerman, the small municipality where the family lived.
She had been stabbed and the body mutilated. At the penalty retrial, prosecutors introduced evidence—which they said was unavailable at the time of the first trial—that the youngster, known as Kelly, told a friend on the day she was killed that Griffin had been molesting her and that she was going to tell her mother if he didn’t stop.
Kelly was stabbed in the neck, strangled and cut open with a hunting knife, a pathologist testified. Prosecutors presented evidence that the defendant had once worked at a meat company, suggesting that he slaughtered the victim in the manner in which animals are slaughtered.
A former police officer who worked with Griffin at a security company said that he once expressed interest in becoming a police officer, leading to a discussion of how evidence is collected in rape cases. Prosecutors said this explained why Griffin washed his genital area in a latrine in a cell area at the police station after Kelly disappeared and before her body was discovered.
The prosecution also presented testimony from Kelly’s cousin that Griffin had previously fondled her on a couple of occasions and threatened to hurt Kelly, as well as the witness’ parents, if she told.
The defense urged the jury and judge to spare Griffin’s life based on a “lingering doubt” about whether the murder had a sexual motivation and because of the defendant’s difficult childhood. They claimed that he and his brothers, one of whom received a life-without-parole sentence for an unrelated murder, had been physically abused as children and that the defendant was operating under extreme emotional distress at the time of Kelly’s murder.
Prosecutors responded with expert testimony that Griffin was not mentally ill, and with witnesses who said they had seen him around the time of the murder and that his behavior was not unusual.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the court, said Fresno Superior Court Judge James L. Quaschnick may have been in error when he declined to instruct jurors that they could have a lingering doubt as to whether the defendant committed felony murder, and thus justify a life sentence without possibility of parole, if they were less than certain the victim had been sexually penetrated.
But even if that was error, the chief justice wrote, it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. George noted that the defense was allowed to present evidence in support of its claim that no penetration occurred, that counsel for both sides had argued the effect of penetration or the lack thereof as it pertained to the issue of lingering doubt, and that neither the judge nor the prosecution had suggested that penetration was not an element of rape and sodomy.
The court rejected all of the defendant’s other claims of sentencing error.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company