Friday, December 16, 2005
S.C. Upholds Ex-CSUN Student’s Death Sentence in 1991 Murders
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a former California State University, Northridge student for the killings of two men shot to death during the June 1991 robbery of a Subway sandwich shop near the campus.
“We have not found any error at the [guilt or] penalty phase of the proceedings,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for a unanimous court. “The defendant received a fair trial.”
The court, however, left open the possibility of a successful habeas corpus challenge to James Robinson Jr.’s death sentence, declining to address the merits of his claim that an excessive amount of victim-impact testimony was admitted.
The death penalty verdict was reached by a second jury after the jury that found him guilty of the murders deadlocked.
The opinion was signed by all seven members of the court, including First District Court of Appeal Justice Carol Corrigan, who faces a Jan. 4 confirmation hearing in her bid to succeed Justice Janice Rogers Brown. Corrigan was assigned to the Robinson case as part of a rotation of Court of Appeal justices who have been filling in since Brown left last summer to join the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen sentenced Robinson to death for the murders, which were committed after Robinson dropped out of CSUN and worked at several jobs, including one at the Subway shop. Prosecutors said the defendant needed money and had become obsessed with firearms after taking up target shooting and buying a handgun.
Plans to Rob
Tai Williams, a childhood friend with whom Robinson had been living, and another friend, Tommy Aldridge, testified that on numerous occasions, Robinson said he planned to rob the sandwich shop. The robbery, Williams testified, occurred right after Williams told the defendant he would have to leave Williams’ apartment, in part because Robinson had not paid for his long distance calls and Williams’ phone had been disconnected as a result.
Police said they were called to the shop before 2 a.m. after someone approached the shop and noticed a bloodied body. Subway employee James White and his friend, Brian Berry had been shot to death at close range.
Robinson’s fingerprints were discovered on a sandwich bag found at the scene of the killings, the bullets used to kill the victims were matched to his handgun, and witnesses said he bragged that he had committed the crimes.
The jury in the first trial found the defendant guilty of two counts of first degree murder and one count of second degree robbery, with special circumstances of multiple murder and robbery-murder.
The penalty phase jury, which heard an extensive amount of victim-impact evidence—covering 37 pages of the reporters’ transcript—returned death penalty verdicts as to both murders.
Victim Impact Evidence
Robinson’s court-appointed appellate lawyer, Susan K. Marr of Brentwood, Tenn., conceded that victim-impact evidence is constitutionally permitted in the penalty phase of a capital case. She argued, however, that Coen abused his discretion by allowing family members to testify in lengthy narratives about how they learned of the murders, how they felt immediately afterwards, and how much they missed the deceased.
The high court unanimously agreed with Deputy Attorney General Analee J. Brodie that the defense had waived any objection by not objecting at the time. But it declined to address the merits, as it often does when it finds an issue waived in a capital case, leaving open the possibility that Robinson will win a writ of habeas corpus based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
Justice Carlos Moreno, in a separate concurrence joined by Justice Joyce L. Kennard, suggested that the claim would be a strong one.
Much of the testimony was inflammatory and constituted improper opinion, Moreno wrote, particularly when family members imagined what the victims’ last moments must have been like, referring to a medical examiner’s testimony that at least one of the victims must have been kneeling when shot.
“In fact, I would hold as a general rule that testimony of victims’ friends and family regarding their imagined reenactments of the crime be excluded,” Moreno wrote. “Such testimony is too far removed from victim impact evidence’s central purpose of explaining the loss to the family and society that resulted from the victim’s death, and can too easily lend itself to improper characterization and opinion of the crime and defendant, to pass muster under the Eighth Amendment. Of course, if the victim impact witness actually witnessed the crime occurring, such testimony would be admissible.”
The court did reject the defense objection to the medical examiner’s testimony. The question was a proper subject for expert opinion, and the testimony relevant to the issues of whether the killings were premeditated and whether they were sufficiently egregious to warrant the death penalty, the chief justice wrote.
The case is People v. Robinson, 05 S.O.S. 5503.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company