Tuesday, December 7, 2004
State Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Man Convicted in 1992 of Killing His Wife and Niece
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the conviction and death sentence of Rodney Jess San Nicolas, found guilty 12 years ago of the 1990 murder of his wife and her 12-year-old niece.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the court, said that none of the arguments advanced by the defense, including the claim that San Nicolas killed in an uncontrollable rage, required that either the conviction or the penalty phase verdict be set aside.
The bodies of Mary James, 37, and her niece, April James, were found hidden in Mary James’ Modesto home the day after both were stabbed to death.
San Nicolas was arrested in Sparks, Nev., four days after the killings. Evidence showed he used his wife’s bank card to withdraw cash in Modesto the day of the killings and in South Lake Tahoe the next day.
The same Stanislaus Superior Court jury that returned the death verdict found San Nicolas guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of forcible rape and one count of lewd conduct with a child.
In addition to the murder charges, the jury found there were special circumstances to support the death penalty, including multiple murders, murder of a witness, and murder in the commission of rape and child molestation.
Witnesses testified that before the killings, James frequently complained about San Nicholas’ failure to find a job. They said she belittled him and told him on several occasions to move out of the house.
The defense argued that the killings were committed in a frenzy, and that San Nicolas did not form the premeditated intent to kill. The sexual assault and killing of the niece, who apparently found San Nicolas covered in his wife’s blood, was the product of a “spillover” of rage directed at Mary James, a defense expert testified.
The defense also contended April James was already dead when the defendant penetrated her sexually, so that the defendant could not be convicted of first degree murder on either a premeditation or felony-murder theory.
The prosecutor argued that both murders were deliberate and premeditated, that April James was killed at least in part because San Nicolas feared that she would testify against him, and that the rape was committed while April James was alive and for sexual gratification.
In the penalty phase, the prosecution offered evidence of six prior felony convictions, two for passing bad checks, two for forging driver’s licenses, and others for grand theft and escape from prison.
The defense countered that there were mitigating circumstances, including the impact of James’ putdowns on San Nicolas’ mental state, a difficult childhood, and a lack of prior criminal violence.
He was the oldest of 10 children in his family and was responsible for the care of his younger siblings, family members testified. They said his parents were strict and set high moral standards for the children.
Moreno, writing for the high court, concluded that there was sufficient evidence of premeditation for a jury to reach first degree murder verdicts as to both killings. Even assuming that San Nicolas had no intent to kill April before, as he told police, she saw him standing over the bathroom sink holding the knife with which he had just stabbed his wife, the justice wrote, the “brief period between seeing April’s reflection and stabbing her is adequate for defendant to have reached the deliberate and premeditated decision to kill April.”
In addition, the justice wrote, jurors “fairly could have concluded that defendant was intent upon killing April due to the sheer number of wounds on April’s body, many of which individually would have been fatal.”
Moreno also rejected the defense attack on the witness-killing special circumstance, explaining that there is no requirement that a prosecution be launched before the murder is committed for it to be construed as a witness killing.
Jurors could have reasonably inferred from the evidence that San Nicolas feared that he would be prosecuted for Mary James’ murder and that killing April was necessary to prevent her from testifying against him, Moreno said.
“April caught defendant in the bathroom in a very compromising state, carrying a knife and soaked in Mary’s blood,” the justice wrote. “Defendant admitted that he saw April’s reflection in the bathroom mirror prior to turning and killing her. In People v. Garrison...47 Cal.3d at page 792, we found the evidence insufficient to support a witness-killing special circumstance where the ëwitness’ had not witnessed anything at all, rejecting the prosecution’s claim that the victim had been killed to keep her from becoming a witness. The same cannot be said for April; whether or not she saw or heard defendant actually kill Mary, or knew that Mary’s dead body lay in the adjacent room, she certainly witnessed defendant covered in blood in the immediate aftermath of the murder.”
The case is People v. San Nicolas, 04 S.O.S. 6257.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company