Wednesday, January 7, 2004
Divided High Court Upholds Death Sentence in 1989 Pomona Slaying
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the death sentence for a man convicted of a 1989 killing at the victim’s Pomona home.
Justices, in a 4-3 ruling, rejected challenges to the conviction and sentence of Alfredo Reyes Valdez for the murder of Ernesto Macias, which jurors found was committed in the course of a robbery.
The dissenters argued that the case should be retried because Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas Nuss, who has since retired, failed to give a sua sponte instruction allowing jurors to convict Valdez of the lesser charge of second degree murder.
Macias’ body was found lying on a curb near his home, and police determined he had been shot several times at close range. One of his pants pockets was turned out, and approximately $80 was found in his pocket.
Prosecutors charged Valdez with the murder after a two-year investigation. They linked him to the crime through circumstantial and scientific evidence.
Gerardo Macias, a distant relative of the victim, testified that he, the defendant, and two other men were together at the house before Ernesto Macias announced that he was going to sleep because he was leaving for Mexico in the morning. Ernesto Macias, who had been drinking beer much of the day, had cashed a $1,200 tax refund check two days earlier and said he was planning to take $3,000 with him.
Gerardo Macias testified that he and the other two men went to a nearby house to “party,” leaving Valdez with Ernesto Macias. But the person whose house they went to wasn’t in a partying mood, he testified, so they returned to Ernesto Macias’ home 10 minutes later, only to find the house unoccupied and “all kinds of blood” in the room where the victim and Valdez had been.
Macias said he found the body, then drove to a telephone booth to call 911. He did not wait for police, he told the jury, because he was afraid and had outstanding arrest warrants.
Police said they found no money or plane tickets in the house.
They linked Valdez to the crime partly on the basis of his bloody palm print, found on a stolen gun that was recovered the day after the killing, during an unrelated investigation, from a car in which he was a passenger. The gun may have been the murder weapon, according to expert testimony.
Valdez did not testify at trial, but gave police a statement about a year after the murder. He said he had been to Macias’ house often to buy drugs, but did not buy any the night of the killing.
He did acknowledge being at the house and arguing with the victim the night of the killing, but said the argument was not violent and denied having anything to do with the murder. He said he had no idea how his palm print got on the gun recovered by police.
At the time he was charged with the murder, Valdez was in custody on unrelated charges. Taken to court for arraignment, he pled not guilty, then broke free while being taken back to lockup.
He was captured in a courthouse bathroom following a scuffle in which a deputy sheriff was allegedly kicked and struck.
Jurors in the murder trial found him guilty of first degree felony murder with a robbery-murder special circumstance. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that he had been convicted of six felonies—an aggravated robbery in Texas and five residential burglaries in California.
They also produced proof of his involvement in four violent attacks on fellow inmates at various correctional facilities and in a robbery in which held a knife to the victim’s chest, took his vehicle, and later led police on a chase followed by a brief struggle with officers as they subdued and handcuffed him.
The defense contended that Valdez was not the killer. In the penalty phase, counsel presented testimony from family members that Valdez had performed many acts of kindness for relatives and had not been violent around them.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the high court, said there was substantial evidence to support the robbery-murder conviction and special circumstance finding. He noted that the defendant was the last person seen with the victim, that Macias was killed within 10 minutes of when the defendant and victim were last seen together, and that the money that the victim was going to take to Mexico, including the proceeds of his tax refund, was never recovered.
He also noted that when police searched Valdez in connection with the unrelated investigation the following day, he had $100 on his person, even though he was unemployed.
Moreno rejected the contention that Nuss had a duty to give a second-degree murder instruction, which court-appointed defense attorney Anthony Robusto specifically declined. The evidence could not plausibly support a conclusion that Valdez murdered Macias but did not rob him, Moreno reasoned.
Moreno was joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Marvin Baxter and Kathryn M. Werdegar.
Justice Ming Chin, joined by Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Janice Rogers Brown dissented, saying Nuss had a duty to give the second degree murder instruction rather than leaving jurors with an “unwarranted all-or-nothing choice.”
Jurors, Chin wrote, could have concluded that the defendant killed the victim in an argument that had nothing to do with robbery. The dissenting justice noted that there was no evidence that Macias kept a large sum of money in the house, that his jewelry was not stolen but was on his person when his body was found, and that police searched the defendant’s house four days after the killing and did not find a sum of cash or any of the victim’s property.
The appeal was argued by Deputy Attorney General Carl Henry and by court-appointed defense counsel Marilee Marshall.
The case is People v. Valdez, 04 S.O.S. 67.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company