Tuesday, August 15, 2006
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Palo Alto Drug Dealer
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on Walter Joseph Cook III in the 1992 killings of three Palo Alto men.
Cook, a crack cocaine seller, was charged and convicted of first degree murder for the separate and unrelated deaths of Ernest Sadler, Michael Bettancourt, and Ronald Morris.
According to trial testimony, Cook beat Sadler to death in February 1992 after Sadler had attempted to run off with some of Cook’s crack. Cook kicked Sadler and battered him in the head and face with a board so severely that Sadler died by suffocating on blood resulting from his injuries.
Several days later at a different location, the record showed, Cook killed Bettancourt while he and other sellers were attempting to sell him crack. When one of the sellers during the transaction accidentally dropped his rock of cocaine into Bettencourt’s car, Cook demanded Bettancourt return the rock and then shot repeatedly with a pistol because he believed Bettancourt was trying to steal from him. Cook admitted to shooting Bettancourt in a police interview.
Cook killed Morris several months later, while Morris was talking to an acquaintance who had pulled up next to him in her car. Cook, a passenger in the acquaintance’s car, suddenly leaned across the driver during the conversation, and shot Morris saying that he told him he would get him back. The acquaintance later testified that Cook had harbored a grudge against Morris for an incident about a week earlier when Morris, then armed, encountered Cook, then unarmed, had mocked Cook’s vulnerability, witnesses testified
Before his trial for the murder charges, Cook moved to sever the three murder charges and try them separately, but San Mateo Superior Court Judge James L. Browning Jr. denied the motion, finding that substantial cross-admissibility of evidence existed as to the Bettancourt and Morris murders because the victims were killed by multiple shots fired from the same gun, which Cook admitted was his; and that there was a common eyewitness between the two gunshot murders and the Sadler murder. Browning found that, despite the brutality of Sadler’s beating, joining the Sadler count to the other two counts would not prejudice Cook in light of the other two multiple gunshot killings.
The jury ultimately returned a death verdict after convicting Cook on all three charges and finding that a multiple-murder special circumstance applied and that Cook personally used a firearm in murdering Bettancourt and Morris, committed Sadler’s murder with a deadly weapon, and personally inflicted great bodily injury on Sadler.
Among the numerous contentions he raised on appeal, Cook argued that the trial judge’s denial of his severance motion violated his right to due process and a fair trial under the state and federal constitutions.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the high court, said Browning did not abuse his discretion in permitting joinder, and a joint trial of all three murders was not fundamentally unfair to Cook.
The three counts clearly involved offenses of the same class of crimes as required by Penal Code Sec. 954, and no one murder was especially likely to inflame the jury’s passions, because each was committed for similar seemingly trivial reasons and involved excessive force, Kennard explained. Moreover, she said, multiple eyewitness statements and Cook’s own admission provided strong evidence for Cook’s responsibility as to each of the murders on its own.
The justice concluded:
“Finally, joinder of only the Bettancourt and Morris murders would have sufficed to support the multiple-murder special circumstances; therefore, the joinder of the Sadler murder did not expand defendant’s death penalty liability. Even under a heightened scrutiny for joinder of charges, when the joinder itself gives rise to the only special circumstance allegation—that of multiple murder…—we here conclude that defendant has not shown [he] suffered prejudice from a single trial on all three murder charges.”
The case is People v. Cook, 06 S.O.S. 4211.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company