Friday, May 7, 2004
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Shasta County Bar Holdup
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a Shasta County man convicted of murdering a bartender during a 1993 robbery.
While other defendants may have avoided the death penalty for killings committed during “barroom holdups,” Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote, the calculated and callous manner in which Thomas Howard Lenart killed Oberta Toney makes the death penalty proportionate to the crime.
Police in the small city of Anderson discovered Toney’s body after Eleanor Gallardo, a patron of the Anderson Lounge, reported struggling with a gun-wielding man who was apparently alone in the dimly lit bar when the patron entered it around noon. She wrestled a single-action revolver from her assailant, but was unable to make an identification.
Several patrons who had been in the bar that morning said that Lenart was still there when they left.
Police also found Lenart’s fingerprint on a beer bottle at the bar. They determined that the gun that Gallardo wrestled away had been taken from the barn of a local resident who rented a unit on his property to Lenart’s ex-wife, and that Lenart had visited the property on a couple of occasions in the weeks prior to the murder.
After learning that Lenart had paid his cable and utility bills and his rent in cash on the afternoon of the murder, police obtained a warrant to search his apartment. They found coin wrappers, burnt fragments of a check that the owner of the bar testified as having been taken the day of the robbery and murder, and a pair of cowboy boots on which were found drops of blood that may have come from the victim.
Forensic testimony said the victim was kicked in the head, possibly with the tip of a cowboy boot. The cause of death was determined to be two gunshot wounds to the head, inflicted from no more than four feet away.
Lenart was also linked to the crime through a strongbox, which his girlfriend found in her storage shed. A former girlfriend identified the box and some jewelry in it as hers, but said that other jewelry in the box was Lenart’s and that she had never before seen the coin wrappers in the box, which were of the type used by the Anderson Lounge.
In seeking the death penalty, prosecutors presented evidence that Lenart had previously been convicted of robbery, grand theft of a firearm, and robbery again in three separate cases between 1970 and 1987. They also presented evidence of uncharged crimes of violence, including an armed assault on a security guard who suspected him of shoplifting at a Torrance grocery store in 1977, and the armed robbery of another area bar in 1987.
Lenart’s court-appointed attorney, Gregory Marshall, argued that it would be cruel and unusual to execute him years after the crime. But similar arguments have been rejected in the past, Kennard said.
Any claim that Lenart’s “personal growth or transformation” justifies sparing his life should be made in a clemency petition, the justice said, adding that “[t]he mere possibility defendant may someday no longer pose a threat to society is an insufficient reason for this court to revisit its prior holding that delay between sentencing and execution does not make a death sentence cruel and unusual.”
In rejecting the proportionality argument, Kennard said it appeared that Toney was killed either because she resisted or because the killer wanted to make sure there were no witnesses. Gallardo would have been killed as well had she not succeeded in wrestling away the gun, the justice said.
“After killing the bartender, defendant used some of the proceeds of the robbery to pay his utility and cable television bills and his overdue rent, and then he and his girlfriend visited a favorite bar,” Kennard continued. “Given the brutality of bartender Toney’s murder and the seeming callousness with which it was committed during the course of a robbery, the death penalty is not disproportionate punishment for defendant’s crimes.”
The case is People v. Lenart, 04 S.O.S. 2266.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company