Friday, December 10, 2004
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Home Invasion Case
Justices Say Evidence for Defense Theory of a Drug Deal Connection Was Properly Excluded
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld a death sentence in a home invasion robbery and murder, rejecting the defense contention that it should have been allowed to present evidence suggesting the crime was actually related to drug dealing.
Attorneys for Jesse Morrison failed to proffer a foundation for their claim that the discovery of more than $30,000 in cash in Cesar Cardenas’ home, combined with a persistent rumor that Cardenas’ brother sold narcotics, supported an alternative theory of Cardenas’ murder, Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for a unanimous court.
“The offer [of proof] consisted at most of a vague claim of evidence ‘floating around’ of a ‘possible drug connection’ on the part of Alex Cardenas, who was living in Nevada,” Baxter wrote. “Trial counsel offered no explanation as to how Alex’s alleged drug involvement had any tendency to prove or disprove any disputed material fact in the case, or what evidence was even available to establish Alex’s drug connection and its relevance to the instant crimes.”
Cardenas, 22, was an Olympic aspirant in boxing and self-employed printer who lived with his mother, sister, and infant niece in the Wilmington home where he was killed. Lourdes Cardenas was severely wounded during the crime and identified Morrison at trial.
Witnesses testified that Morrison, brothers Michael and Shawn Berry, and a teenager broke into the house a little after midnight. The group had visited the house a few hours earlier attack to ask Cesar Cardenas about a printing job.
The Cardenases knew the Berrys; they had been neighbors in Carson before the Cardenas family moved to Wilmington.
Morrison and Michael Berry were arrested together in Maryland 10 months after the killing. Michael Berry was tried separately and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Shawn Berry was sentenced to four years in state prison after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of residential burglary. The teenage accomplice, identified only as Nathan L., was 15 years old at the time and was committed to the California Youth Authority by a juvenile court judge.
Lourdes Cardenas testified that she went to bed after the men completed their business with her brother and left. Later, she said, she awoke to the sound of voices in the hallway outside her bedroom.
When she looked out, she saw Morrison, Michael Berry, and the teenager armed with guns demanding money from her brother.
Michael Berry, she testified, said something like “Give us the money. Give us what we want.”
She said she gave them $2,000, money she had been saving to pay a hospital bill for the birth of her daughter, and some jewelry.
Morrison, she testified, ordered Cesar Cardenas to go into his bedroom and lie down on his bed. The victim was shot twice in the head, after which Morrison came out of the room, Lourdes Cardenas testified, and began firing at her.
She suffered bullet wounds in her neck and chest and spent two months in the hospital, and still had a bullet in her lung at the time of trial.
The day after the murder, police received information from a confidential informant claiming that Alex Cardenas had left $75,000 in cash in a red suitcase at a Wilmington residence. Police went there and found $31,600 in a burgundy-colored athletic bag.
Two detectives later testified that the bag appeared to be the same one they had observed at the Cardenas home after the crimes, and that Lourdes Cardenas testified that she knew nothing about the money. Ultimately, they said, they concluded that the money was in the Cardenas home at the time of the crimes and that it could not be tied to any illegal activity, so it was released to Lourdes Cardenas.
The defense, which contended that Morrison had been misidentified, perhaps intentionally, argued that Lourdes Cardenas lied on cross-examination by claiming she had no idea what Michael Berry meant when he said “Give us want we want.”
But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gary Ferrari ruled the defense did not show that the evidence was relevant, that Cardenas lied, or that the prosecution committed misconduct by not “correcting” the testimony.
Baxter, writing for the high court, agreed. Even if relevant, the proffered evidence of Alex Cardenas’ alleged drug activities would have been inadmissible hearsay, the justice said.
Nor did the discovery of the cash necessarily undermine Lourdes Cardenas’ credibility, Baxter wrote.
“Defendant’s conclusion that Lourdes must have known what Michael Berry specifically had in mind when he demanded, ‘Give us what we want...does not inevitably or necessarily follow from the mere fact that the police released $31,600 to her after the crimes,” the justice wrote. “Although it arguably may be inferred from Lourdes’s receipt of the money that she might have at least suspected Michael Berry to have had some knowledge of the money, her testimony to the contrary was not physically impossible or demonstrably false.”
Attorneys who argued in the Supreme Court were John Dodd of Irvine, by court appointment, for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General Juliet Swoboda for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Morrison, 04 S.O.S. 6368.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company