Thursday, January 12, 2006
Nation’s Highest Court Reinstates Kern County Death Sentence
Justices, Ruling 5-4 With Roberts in Majority, Say Invalidation of Special Circumstance Finding Need Not Void Penalty
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A divided Supreme Court reinstated a Kern County man’s death sentence yesterday in the first 5-4 vote under newly installed Chief Justice John Roberts.
The court overturned a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Ronald Sanders had been denied due process and subjected to cruel and unusual punishment when the California Supreme Court upheld the sentence despite finding that two of the jury’s four special circumstance findings were invalid.
The Ninth Circuit held that there was a reasonable doubt that jurors would have opted for the death sentence had only the two valid special circumstances been considered, and ordered a new penalty trial.
But the high court, clarifying previous decisions as to how aggravating and mitigating circumstances are to be weighed in capital cases, said the invalid special-circumstance findings were harmless because the two valid findings were a sufficient foundation for the jury to weigh all of the evidence and come up with the proper sentence.
The defendant, Ronald Sanders, was convicted of clubbing to death Janice Allen of Bakersfield 24 years ago. 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.
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.
Botched Robbery Plot
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 California Supreme Court in 1990 threw out the “especially heinous” finding because of a prior ruling, which came down while Sanders’ sentence was on appeal, that the formulation was too vague to pass muster under the state Constitution. The high court also rejected the burglary-murder finding because the judge’s instructions erroneously allowed jurors to find the allegation true even if they believed that 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.
The state justices upheld the death sentence, however, reasoning that consideration of the invalidated special circumstances was harmless because the bulk of the evidence that was used to prove them could still have been considered in the penalty phase.
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.
But Justice Antonin Scalia, writing yesterday for the high court, said the Ninth Circuit’s analytical approach was wrong.
“The erroneous factor could not have `skewed’ the sentence, and no constitutional violation occurred,” Scalia wrote in an opinion joined by Roberts, retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said “this decision is more likely to complicate than to clarify our capital sentencing jurisprudence.”
Also disagreeing with the decision were Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, although their reasons were varied. In a lengthy dissent, Breyer said the court’s finding could “deprive a defendant of a fair and reliable sentencing proceeding.”
The majority’s approach, “diminishes the need to conduct any harmless-error review at all,” he wrote. “If all the evidence was properly admitted and if the jury can use that evidence when it considers other aggravating factors, any error, the Court announces, must be harmless.”
This can lead to unfair results, the justice said.
“[T]he problem before us is not a problem of the admissibility of certain evidence,” he explained. “It is a problem of the emphasis given to that evidence by the State or the trial court.”
The California Justice Legal Foundation, amicus in support of the state, hailed the result. It noted that the approach endorsed by the high court is similar to one advocated by Judge Samuel Alito in a 1995 opinion for the Third Circuit.
“Alito has been fiercely criticized for that opinion by opponents of the death penalty, but it was vindicated today,” the CJLF said in a statement.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company