Tuesday, May 16, 2006
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Killing of Fresno Women
Potential Jurors May be Excused Based Upon Written Questionnaire, Justices Rule
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Prospective jurors in a capital case may be discharged for cause based solely on their answers to a written questionnaire, if it is clear from their answers that they are unwilling to temporarily set aside their own beliefs and follow the law, the California Supreme Court held yesterday.
The court upheld the 1994 first degree murder conviction and death sentence of Johnny Avila Jr. for the 1991 murders of Dorothy Medina and Arlene Sanchez. Also convicted for the murders were Avila’s cousin, Richard Avila, and Jeffrey Spradlin, who was also convicted of rape while acting in concert
Fresno Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Kane imposed the sentences, after a joint trial on guilt followed by separate penalty phases. Kane is currently awaiting a confirmation hearing, having been nominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
On the night of July 1, 1991, testimony showed, Medina and Sanchez joined about 30 people who had gathered at Richard Avila’s residence in the expectation of a drive by shooting. Witnesses said people were drinking beer and smoking marijuana and PCP.
Prosecutors said that during the course of the night Medina was brutally gang-raped, then taken with Sanchez to a canal where they were both shot twice in the head, killing them.
With help from counsel, the trial court prepared a jury questionnaire consisting of 108 questions, several pages of which dealt with the potential jurors’ views on the death penalty. Based solely on the questionnaires, Kane proposed to excuse for cause 14 of the first 75 prospective jurors because their responses indicated that they would either always impose the death penalty, or would never impose it, or that they had read or heard information about the case that created a strong belief in the defendant’s guilt
The defendant unsuccessfully objected to the excusal of four of the 14, arguing that subsequent questioning might have revealed that they were qualified to sit on the jury.
Justice Marvin R. Baxter, writing for the Supreme Court, said the trial judge acted within his discretion:
“The questionnaire at issue here . . . asked whether a prospective juror held such conscientious objections to the death penalty that, regardless of the evidence or the strength of proof, he or she ‘automatically’ would refuse to return a first degree murder verdict, find a special circumstance, or impose the death penalty. Any juror who ‘automatically’ would vote in way that precluded the death penalty would clearly be disqualified.”
Baxter wrote that the questionnaire did not contain the same defects the court found in questionnaires in earlier cases:
“Thus, this questionnaire format . . . included more expansive and detailed questions on capital punishment and gave jurors the clear opportunity to disclose views against it so strong as to disqualify them for duty on a death penalty case.”
The court also held that when a trial court determines that a defendant has made a prima facie showing that a particular prospective juror has been challenged by the prosecution because of bias, the court need not ask the prosecutor to justify challenges to other prospective jurors of the same group for which the court had already denied Batson /Wheeler motions.
The court disapproved People v. McGee (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 559, to the extent that it is inconsistent.
“In McGee, the Court of Appeal characterized Wheeler motions as challenging “the selection of a jury, not the rejection of an individual juror the issue is whether a pattern of systematic exclusion exists.” Accordingly, it held that once the trial court has found a prima facie case of group bias in the excusal of one prospective juror, the burden shifts to the prosecutor to provide race-neutral explanations for all challenges to prospective jurors who are members of the same group.”
Baxter wrote that the McGee analysis was flawed:
“The premise of the Court of Appeal’s analysis in McGee, however, is incorrect. When a party makes a Wheeler motion, the issue is not whether there is a pattern of systematic exclusion rather, the issue is whether a particular prospective juror has been challenged because of group bias.”
The court also held that the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges to eliminate four jurors who did not wholeheartedly support the death penalty did not violate defendant’s constitutional rights to due process, a fundamentally fair trial by an impartial jury, or a reliable judgment.
The case is People v. Avila, 06 S.O.S. 2295.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company