High Court Upholds Death Sentence for Reseda Auto Mechanic
Justices Agree With Schwab That Defendant Did Not Present Evidence to Support Claim of Self-Defense
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a Reseda auto mechanic in the death of a woman who was raped and strangled after she accepted the man’s offer of a ride home from a local bar.
It was the third time in three weeks the court affirmed a death sentence. All three victims were from the San Fernando Valley and had been sexually assaulted, the cases being otherwise unrelated.
Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for a unanimous court, rejected claims that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard Schwab erred in excluding evidence the victim had left the same bar with another man on an earlier occasion, and in rejecting a proposed instruction on self-defense.
Schwab sentenced Richard Stitely, 44 at the time, to die for the killing of Carol Unger, 47. Stitely was convicted by the same jury in an unrelated incident of raping another woman six months before.
Stitely was tied to the rape and murder by DNA tests, after Unger’s body was found in an alley the day after she failed to return home from the White Oak Inn.
Witnesses said she left with Stitely. Stitely originally claimed he was not at the bar that night, but changed his story under interrogation.
In one version of the night’s events, he said that he dropped her off near her home, and that he got scared when she took a steak knife out of her purse, but that she did not threaten him and left the vehicle. Later, he said they had a fight in the car because she wanted to go to another bar and he wanted to go home, and that he knocked the knife out of her hand.
After the detective mentioned DNA testing, Stitely changed his story again and said they had consensual sex. He claimed he did not mention it earlier because another woman—the subject of the rape charge of which he was also convicted—had falsely accused him.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented testimony from members of the defendant’s family who said he had molested his own children when they were young. The defense presented testimony from three former employers that the defendant was a good worker and had not been violent, and also noted that Stitely had never previously been convicted of a crime.
Baxter, writing for the high court, said the trial judge was correct in ruling that the defense failed to present evidence that would justify a self-defense instruction.
“Aside from the inconsistent accounts defendant gave to police, there is no evidence Carol brought a knife to the murder scene,” the justice wrote. Unger’s husband and friends testified she never took a knife to the bar, Baxter noted, adding that “the medical and physical evidence showed that Carol — the victim of lethal force — struggled with her attacker and suffered defensive knife wounds.”
Nor, the justice went on to say, did Schwab err in excluding testimony about Unger’s accepting a ride home from another man on another occasion.
The implication of the testimony, Baxter explained, is that Unger left with the other man in order to have sex, arguably supporting Stitely’s claim that he and Unger had consensual sex.
That being so, the justice reasoned, Schwab may have been correct in keeping the evidence out under California’s rape shield law. And even if his interpretation of the statute was in error, the justice said, Schwab had the discretion to exclude the evidence as being so speculative that its tendency to confuse the jury or delay the proceedings outweighed its probative value.
Baxter also rejected the contention that evidence of the alleged molestation of the defendant’s children should have been excluded, either because the incidents had occurred a decade earlier or because a grand jury in Texas—where the conduct allegedly occurred—had considered the case and refused to indict.
The alleged conduct, Baxter concluded, was not so remote in time as to make its admission unduly prejudicial, especially since it was a violent sex crime. And a refusal to indict is not the equivalent of an acquittal, which would have precluded use of the incidents as penalty phase evidence, the justice said.
The case is People v. Stitely, 05 S.O.S. 1366.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company