Tuesday, January 25, 2005
S.C. Reverses Grant of New Trial in LAPD Officer’s Slaying
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A gang member convicted of killing a Los Angeles police officer did not unequivocally request counsel before admitted the crime, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices overturned a Court of Appeal ruling, by this district’s Div. Eight, granting a new trial to Catarino Gonzalez Jr. The lower panel held that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when detectives and a police polygraph examiner continued to question him and when his statements made during such questioning were admitted in evidence.
Gonzalez, a member of the Smiley Hauser clique of the 18th Street Gang, is serving life life in prison without parole for the murder of Filbert Cuesta. Cuesta died in August 1998, after being ambushed by a gunman who shot at his patrol car when he and partner Richard Gabaldon responded to a noisy party in the Crenshaw district.
Several gang members were at the party, and Cuesta was hit in the back of the head as he sat in the patrol car while he and Gabaldon waited for backup units to arrive.
Gonzalez, a party guest, was arrested three days later and at first denied shooting Cuesta. He originally claimed that he was inside the house when he heard the shots, and that he then ran to the back, went through a gate and over a fence, and ran to his sister’s house.
He was afraid of an encounter with the police, he claimed, because people told him that officers were looking for him because he had been seen painting graffiti, and he was facing a five-year prison term for probation violation.
But after two interrogations and a polygraph exam, he admitted firing the shots, although he said he “was just shooting” at the car with no intent to kill anyone.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry admitted the confession over the objections of defense counsel, and Gonzalez was convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances of killing a peace officer, lying in wait, and murder to avoid arrest, and of the attempted murder of Gabaldon.
In addition to the life-without-parole sentence, he received consecutive terms of 25 years to life for using a firearm to commit the murder, 15 years to life for attempted murder, and 20 years for using a firearm in the course of the attempted murder.
But Justice Paul Boland, in an unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, said the police violated the defendant’s right to counsel by not placing him in contact with a lawyer after, at the conclusion of the first interrogation, Gonzalez said “if for any little thing you guys are going to charge me, I want to talk to a public defender too, for any little thing.”
A reasonable officer would have understood that to be a request for counsel, Boland said, citing Davis v. United States (1994) 512 U.S. 452. “At a minimum,” the justice wrote, “the detectives should have asked appellant whether he meant he wanted to consult an attorney if the police were going to keep him in custody.”
But Justice Carlos Moreno, writing yesterday for the high court, agreed with the trial judge that the statement was ambiguous and that Gonzalez had sufficient experience with the police to understand how to invoke the right to counsel if that was what he wanted to do.
Moreno cited the testimony of four officers who had previously arrested Gonzalez. The defendant had waived his right to counsel on three of the four occasions—although he was not questioned further on one of them—and asserted his right to a lawyer on one occasion.
Davis, Moreno emphasized, requires that the request for counsel be unequivocal and that the suspect make it clear that he or she wishes to see a lawyer immediately. Gonzalez’s statement, the high court justice said, “did not meet this standard of clarity.”
The Court of Appeal erred, Moreno went on to say, in its concern as to whether Gonzalez was able to clearly articulate his desire for counsel. The focus of the inquiry is not on the defendant’s state of mind, but on what meaning a reasonable officer would have imputed to the defendant’s words, the justice explained.
The Div. Eight panel also erred in imposing a requirement that the police ask clarifying questions in the face of an ambiguous statement that might be construed as a request for counsel, Moreno said.
“Davis specifically rejects a rule that requires police to seek clarification of a suspect’s ambiguous or equivocal request for counsel....Moreover, in this case, by explaining to defendant the distinction between an arrest and booking and being charged, the detectives did provide him with an opportunity to clarify the meaning of his statement. He failed to do so.”
The case was argued in the Supreme Court by Gonzalez’s court-appointed attorney, Sylvia Whatley Beckham of Ojai, and Deputy Attorney General James William Bilderback II.
The case is People v. Gonzalez, 05 S.O.S. 341.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company