Friday, June 25, 2004
State Supreme Court Sidesteps Ineffective-Assistance Claim
Habeas Corpus Held Proper Procedure for Claim That Lawyer-Turned-Jurist Botched Penalty Phase
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A capital defendant who claims his original trial lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence in the penalty phase has no constitutional right to offer such evidence at a resentencing ordered as a result of an unrelated error, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justices unanimously affirmed the second death sentence imposed on Robert Lewis Jr. But Justice Janice Rogers Brown, writing for the court, noted that Lewis’ complaints about court-appointed trial counsel Ron Slick can still be considered in a habeas corpus proceeding.
Slick, who represented Lewis at his 1984 trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ellsworth Beam, who has since retired, is now a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner. Robert Sanger, the Santa Barbara attorney who represented Lewis on his latest appeal, last year filed a 307-page habeas petition that is now pending before the high court.
New Sentencing Hearing
Lewis, now in his 50s, was sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of Milton Estell, who was found bound, gagged, stabbed and shot in the bedroom of his Long Beach home. Lewis was arrested while driving Estell’s Cadillac, which the defendant told police he had purchased from the victim several days before the murder is believed to have occurred.
In a 1990 ruling, the state high court upheld Lewis’ murder conviction but ordered a new sentencing hearing because the trial judge went outside the trial record and considered a probation report in denying the defense motion to reduce the sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
The court specifically ordered that the new sentence be based on the record of the first trial. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Charvat rejected Lewis’ claims that he had a constitutional right to present new evidence, declared on the basis of the trial transcript that Lewis was “a hostile and violent man” who had spent most of his adult life in prison or on parole after serving time in the custody of the Youth Authority, concluded that there were no mitigating circumstances, denied the motion for modification of the verdict, and again sentenced Lewis to death.
In the second appeal, Sanger argued that the denial of an opportunity to present new evidence, or at least to allow witnesses who testified at the trial to do so again in person so that Charvat could assess their credibility, violated due process.
Trial Court Upheld
But Brown said Charvat was correct in rejecting the defense efforts to enlarge the scope of the new sentencing hearing. The high court’s remand order left the trial judge with no choice, she said, adding that nothing in the state or federal constitutions requires judges to consider evidence outside the scope of the trial record in ruling on the “unique” death penalty modification motion.
“Even if, as defendant contends, his ‘original trial was a mockery’ because ‘[t]his was a Ron Slick case,’ that fact does not establish any constitutional deficiency in the statutorily regulated procedures of a capital trial,” the justice wrote. “Nor does it excuse enforcement of those procedures.”
Lewis is one of eight former clients of Slick sentenced to death, believed to be the most of any California lawyer since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1978. A 1991 Los Angeles Times profile of the lawyer was entitled “The Case of the Speedy Attorney” and reported that his murder trials tended to be much shorter than those of other defense lawyers.
The Lewis trial, for example, lasted three days, while another case had a one-day penalty phase. And a jury trial for first degree without special circumstances—in which the trial judge and the Court of Appeal both later found Slick’s defense to be inadequate— lasted a single day.
Charges in that case were eventually dropped.
The Times story quoted well-known local defense attorneys who had assumed representation of former Slick clients as saying that he had performed poorly and was more concerned with ingratiating himself with judges than with competently representing the accused. Slick in turn said he could not understand why other defense lawyers put so many hours into their cases.
Slick was appointed a commissioner in 1996 and sits in Compton.
Yesterday’s case is People v. Lewis, 04 S.O.S. 3183.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company