Tuesday, July 27, 2004
S.C. Overturns Death Sentence, Says Local Lawyer Was Ineffective
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously threw out the death sentence of a Whittier-area man convicted of murdering his elderly neighbors 18 years ago, saying his attorney failed to investigate mitigating evidence in the penalty phase.
James E. Patterson, who practiced for 40 years before taking inactive status in 2002, could have “readily” discovered “weighty” evidence that Larry Douglas Lucas was physically and emotionally abused by family members as a child, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.
Instead, the chief justice added, the only evidence the jury had before it in the penalty phase was proof of Lucas’ “ruthlessness and violence.” Had jurors been told the extent of the mistreatment the defendant suffered in his youth, George wrote, “a reasonable probability exists that the jury would have found in this evidence some explanation for petitioner’s criminal propensities and some basis for the exercise of mercy.”
Linked by Fingerprints
Lucas, who lived next door to Edwin and Mary Marriott for many years, was linked to their murders and to the burglary of their ransacked home by fingerprints found on boxes in the house. Police searched Lucas’ home and seized a pair of pants and boxer shorts with blood on them; an expert testified that the blood on the pants could have been Lucas’ and the blood on the shorts could have been Edwin Marriott’s and could not have come from the defendant.
Lucas testified that he spent the day of the killings consuming large quantities of drugs with two friends. He passed out, he said, and was unable to testify in detail about what happened afterwards.
He denied having any reason or desire to kill the Marriotts. Prosecutors theorized that he burglarized the house for money to buy drugs and killed the victims rather than leave witnesses who knew and could identify him, but Lucas claimed he did not need money for drugs.
In rebuttal, police officers testified that Lucas admitted owning a bloody knife that was found inside the Marriott house, and that he attempted to hide his wounded hand during an interview before admitting he cut himself inside the home.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors called a young woman who had been the babysitter for Lucas’ children. She testified that two years before the murders, Lucas accused her of stealing marijuana from him, pointed a gun at her neck, hit her, and threatened to have her killed.
Lucas was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in that case.
The defense presented no penalty phase evidence, prompting Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Torribio to order an ex parte hearing before Judge Robert W. Armstrong, who has since retired.
Patterson explained at the hearing that he had tactical reasons for not presenting mitigating evidence, including the fear that testimony from family members about his background would merely reinforce the image of a violent man. The attorney also expressed fear that an escape conviction, which the jury had not learned of, would come out.
In closing arguments, Patterson insisted that the defendant was high on drugs and not in his “right mind” at the time of the murders.
Jurors found Lucas guilty of first degree murder, with burglary and multiple-murder special circumstances, and of burglary. The conviction and sentence were affirmed in a 6-1 decision of the Supreme Court in 1995, with Justice Stanley Mosk arguing in dissent that Patterson’s failure to present mitigating evidence was a sufficient reason to throw out the death sentence.
The high court subsequently ruled that the defendant had presented sufficient evidence to require an evidentiary hearing on two issues raised in his ineffective assistance petition.
Then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patrick Couwenberg, who has since been removed from the bench, was appointed to hear evidence as to whether Lucas received ineffective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase and whether a juror had committed prejudicial misconduct when he informed fellow jurors that he had used drugs in the past, knew others who had done so, and had “never seen them do what this man has done.”
In his opinion yesterday for the high court, George said there was no misconduct in the juror relating his own personal experiences and observation. But there was substantial evidence to support Couwenberg’s finding that Patterson acted unreasonably in not pursuing an investigation of the circumstances of Lucas’ childhood.
Patterson knew that Lucas had spent several years in institutions and foster homes as a child, and was offered the names of a number of potential witnesses by the defendant’s sister, the chief justice noted.
By talking to family members and reviewing available documents, George elaborated, he would also have earned that as a child, Lucas was “excoriated because of the circumstances of his birth”—his parents were not married—and subjected to harsh and humiliating discipline by his mother, grandmother, stepfather, and other relatives, including beatings with a belt and burning with cigarettes.
The chief justice rejected the attorney general’s arguments that Patterson’s decision not to present a case in mitigation was reasonable, given that the evidence related to events many years earlier—Lucas was 37 at the time of the murders—and that the discipline that he was aware of seemed trivial in comparison with the brutality of the crimes.
George noted that both prosecution and defense experts had agreed before Couwenberg that a thorough investigation of the defendant’s social history is a requisite for penalty phase defense in capital cases, and that a reasonably competent defense attorney would have conducted such an investigation in 1986.
“Although respondent points to defense counsel’s asserted tactical decision that, in light of the brutality of the capital murders, there was little mitigating value in evidence that petitioner’s stepfather had been an alcoholic or that as a child petitioner had been punished for bedwetting by being forced to stay under a bed for three days, it is evident that Patterson was not sufficiently informed concerning the circumstances of petitioner’s childhood to make the ‘tactical’ determination that he did,” the chief justice went on to say.
“Patterson’s view that evidence of childhood abuse and institutionalization would be unhelpful seems to demonstrate a lack of appreciation of the purpose of the penalty proceedings,” the chief justice wrote.
The case was argued before the high court by Steven L. Friedlander of Cooley Godward’s San Francisco office for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General Mary Sanchez for the state.
The case is In re Lucas, 04 S.O.S. 3875.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company