Tuesday, March 29, 2005
U.S. High Court to Hear State’s Appeal of Death Sentence Reversal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear the state’s appeal of a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order overturning the death sentence for a Kern County man convicted of killing a woman 23 years ago.
Ronald Sanders was convicted of clubbing to death Janice Allen of Bakersfield. She and her boyfriend were bound and gagged when Sanders allegedly robbed the apartment for cocaine.
The Ninth Circuit upheld Sanders’ murder conviction, rejecting his contention that Hispanics were underrepresented in the Kern County jury pool at the time of his trial. Judge Raymond C. Fisher, writing for the Court of Appeals, said the statistics offered to support the argument failed to account for the fact hat a portion of the adult Hispanic population consisted of aliens or persons otherwise unqualified for jury service.
But the panel agreed with defense attorneys that the state Supreme Court was wrong when held that the erroneous consideration of the “heinous, atrocious and cruel” special circumstance—held unconstitutionally vague by the state high court while Sanders’ appeal was pending—was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Sanders has been on Death Row since 1982. Prosecutors said Allen’s murder grew out of a dispute between her drug-dealing boyfriend and two of his customers.
Brenda Maxwell, one of the customers, testified that she, her aunt Donna Thompson, and Sanders hatched a plan to rob the boyfriend, Dale Boender, and steal his cocaine. The plan went awry, Maxwell said, when Boender escaped after being hit with a piece of pool cue by Sanders.
Maxwell said she and Sanders then enlisted a friend, John Cebreros, for a plan to attack Boender in his apartment. Boender testified that Sanders and Cebreros rushed into the apartment, knocked him down, bound and blindfolded both him and Allen, and then knocked him unconscious.
Boender was found later that night, his skull fractured, lying in a pool of blood. There was testimony that some marijuana had been taken from the apartment.
Allen was found in a bedroom, dead from a head wound inflicted with a blunt, heavy object.
Maxwell testified in exchange for immunity. Sanders and Cebreros were tried together, the first trial ending in a hung jury. At the second trial, both were found guilty of first degree with four special circumstances—robbery-murder, burglary-murder, witness killing, and that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel—but the death penalty was only sought for Sanders, whom penalty-phase witnesses tied to five armed robberies committed in Orange County in 1970.
The high court, in addition to throwing out the last special circumstance, rejected the burglary-murder finding because the judge’s instructions erroneously allowed jurors to find the allegation true even if Cebreros was the one who decided to rob and/or kill and Sanders’ only criminal intent at the time of entry was to commit an assault.
Fisher, writing for the Ninth Circuit, noted that at the time of the California high court ruling in Sanders’ case, the U.S. Supreme Court’s standards for review of death sentences from “weighing” states were still evolving. It later became clear, Fisher explained, that the consideration of an improper special circumstance is reversible error unless harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Applying its own harmless-error analysis, the Ninth Circuit concluded that if the only special circumstances had been robbery-murder and witness killing, jurors might have spared Sanders the death penalty, since his prior crimes were not recent and/or because jurors might have felt it unfair that he be executed when Cebreros received a life sentence and Maxwell, without whose assistance the murder might never have occurred, was not even charged.
Sanders’ attorney, Nina Rivkind, said she was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision. “I think the decision of the 9th Circuit was correct, and I’m looking forward to convincing the Supreme Court of that,” Rivkind told the Associated Press.
The case is Brown v. Sanders, 04-980. The Ninth Circuit case, Sanders v. Woodford, can be found at 373 F.3d 1054.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company