Tuesday, August 30, 2005
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Murder of Pregnant Gardena Woman
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the death sentence imposed for the 1994 killing of a pregnant Gardena woman, saying the trial judge’s manner of questioning the defendant during his testimony may have been improper but was not prejudicial.
In a 5-1 decision, the justices affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan’s imposition of the maximum penalty on Maurice Harris for the murder of Alicia Allen and her fetus. Prosecutors presented evidence that Allen, who was 17 weeks pregnant at the time of her death, had been wearing earrings, a gold chain, and four rings shortly before the murder; there was no jewelry on or near the corpse.
Harris was tied to the murder through the testimony of Regina Mills, whose residence the defendant was arrested at, and who testified for the prosecution under a grant of immunity from prosecution for harboring a fugitive and possession of stolen property. Mills said Harris told her he had been involved in a robbery and that he thought he shot a pregnant woman.
Also testifying for the prosecution was Bernard Canto, Allen’s boyfriend and an acquaintance of the defendant. Canto claimed that Harris shot him a little over a mile from the residence he shared with Allen, about an hour before police responded to the report of Allen’s shooting.
Canto claimed that the defendant, with whom he had dealings related to a car restoration business, had called him and said he was going to repay a $1,500 debt to Canto, but then shot him in front of the defendant’s apartment.
Canto, who was hospitalized for a month, was murdered in Chicago a little more than a year later, before Harris’ trial. His preliminary hearing testimony was introduced at the trial.
Harris, in a version of the events that he admitted he had not told to anyone before the trial, denied the murder, and claimed to have been innocently caught up in events involving Canto.
Harris said he and Canto had sold drugs together, using contacts Harris made as a convicted drug offender who had been involved in several large-scale cocaine deals before serving a term in federal prison.
On the day of the shootings, Harris claimed, Canto contacted him for help in meeting the requests of two visitors from Chicago who wanted to buy a kilogram of cocaine.
Unable to get the kilo from his supplier, Harris said he decided to use a kilo of fake cocaine, believing the buyers were in a hurry and would not test the merchandise before going home. When he got to the house, however, two men attacked him and tied him up; he said he loosened his hands and ran out.
He denied giving a contrary version of events to Mills, who testified that Harris called her from jail and threatened to kill her because he believed she was the one who told the police where he was.
After the prosecutor cross-examined Harris, Horan—a former deputy district attorney—asked the defendant a number of questions, including the following colloquy:
“Court: When you were in the house, you say you heard a gun go off? Who did you figure was being shot?
“Defendant: I thought I was being shot at.
“Court: At some point did it dawn on you that perhaps somebody else had been shot in the house?
“Court: Never did?
“Court: Did you think that Mr. Canto might be in there?
“Defendant: Yes, I figured it was a possibility he was in there.
“Court: You didn’t see him, though?
“Court: Did you ever call the house later on to see if anybody got killed?
“Defendant: No, I didn’t.
“Court: Why not?
“Defendant: Just never crossed my mind....
“Court: Weren’t you curious?
“Defendant: I was more distraught.
“Court: In the next couple of days did you ever call the house or try to contact Mr. Canto?
“Defendant: Like I said, I believe it was the next day that I read the newspaper.
“Court: You said two days later.
“Defendant: I believe it was either that day or the next day.
“Court: It wouldn’t be in the next morning’s paper since it happened so late.
“Defendant: I couldn’t say for sure. I couldn’t say what day it was.
“Court: You never called to find out what happened?
“Court: Never did?
In addition to finding Harris guilty of first degree murder of Allen and first degree murder of a fetus, the jury convicted him of the attempted murder of Canto, and found as special circumstances that Allen was murdered in the course of a burglary and a robbery, and that the killings of Allen and her fetus constituted multiple murder.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court, said that while he could “not endorse all of the trial court’s questioning...and, indeed, would find some of it inappropriate” if the defense had objected, there was no prejudice.
“We must assume that jurors followed their instruction not to ëdisbelieve any witness’ or to decide the facts based on anything the court said or did, and to disregard any intimations or suggestions the court may have made regarding the believability of any witness,” the justice wrote. “Further, the evidence of guilt was strong and the weaknesses in defendant’s assertions of innocence would have been apparent to the jury even absent the court’s questions.”
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing separately, criticized the judge’s questioning, saying he “became an advocate for the prosecution, abandoning the neutrality required of a judge,” but agreed that the questioning was not prejudicial. She argued, however, that the death sentence should be reversed because Horan erroneously excluded defense evidence concerning Canto’s activities that might have resulted in a different verdict in the penalty phase.
The case is People v. Harris, 05 S.O.S. 4199.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company