Tuesday, July 11, 2006
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Riverside Stabbing Murder
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence of a Riverside man in the stabbing death of a local resident killed in his room at a boarding house.
The justices upheld Riverside Superior Court Judge H. Dennis Myers’ imposition of the maximum sentence in the case of Gregory S. Demetrulias, based on a jury verdict. The high court rejected defense claims that proof of another crime committed by Demetrulias after the murder of Robert Miller should have been excluded as inadmissible character evidence.
The defendant admitted killing Miller, but claimed he did so in self-defense when Miller attacked him after Demetrulias went to Miller’s room to collect a debt.
Prosecutors said there was no such debt, and that the motive for the killing was robbery.
They presented evidence that residents heard a man loudly demand Miller’s wallet just before Miller staggered from his room, saying he had been stabbed; that Miller’s wallet was empty after the stabbing, even though he had withdrawn several hundred dollars from the bank days earlier; and that Demetrulias had more than $1,000 on his person when he was arrested.
At the time of the arrest, police also found a wallet containing the identification of Clarence Wissel, an elderly resident of Colton. When they went to Wissel’s home, they found him bound with a telephone cord and with a heavy dresser placed on top of him.
He had been stabbed several times. In a field about halfway between the two crime scenes, police found shoe prints that matched the pattern of the shoes Demetrulias was wearing when arrested; the same prints were found in and around the Wissel house.
Demetrulias was tried first for the robbery and assault on Wissel, and was convicted. At the murder trial, prosecutors offered evidence of the Wissel attack, which the judge admitted over defense objection.
The defendant testified that he was confused and afraid after stabbing Miller, and that he ran out but planned to turn himself in. He sought help from Wissel, whom he knew from business dealings between Wissel and his father, but the elderly man pulled a gun on him, and he responded by stabbing him and then tying him up to prevent him from attacking again, Demetrulias told jurors.
The jury found Demetrulias guilty of first degree murder with a robbery special circumstance. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that the defendant had been convicted of other violent crimes and that he had been involved in three attacks on cellmates and one on officers while in jail awaiting trial.
The defense contended that Demetrulias should be spared execution because of his harsh childhood and because he had done good things as an adult before experiencing drug and alcohol problems.
On appeal, the defense argued that the Wissel evidence had been offered solely to show that the defendant was of bad character, contrary to the Evidence Code, and that its admission was prejudicial. The high court rejected both arguments.
Werdegar explained that the two crimes were sufficiently similar to render the evidence admissible to show motive, since there was a dispute as to whether the defendant went to Miller’s room to collect a debt or to commit a robbery.
Nor was the evidence unduly prejudicial, the jurist said.
“Some aspects of the Wissel evidence were potentially inflammatory, but at the same time the ferocity and extent of defendant’s attack on Wissel was probative of his criminal intent and lack of need for self-defense,” the justice elaborated. “The jury was twice instructed not to consider the Wissel evidence as showing bad character, minimizing the potential for improper use...and the prosecutor did not suggest to the jury that it consider the Wissel evidence for any improper purpose.”
Werdegar also rejected the contention that the prosecution’s penalty phase argument contained improper remarks, including a reference to the defendant’s violent conduct in custody.
The prosecutor argued that if the defendant were sentenced to life imprisonment:
“We cannot put him in a cage somewhere and put him in a hole and never feed him and never have anyone come in contact with him. . . . He will be with other inmates. He will have contact with other jail deputies. He will have contact with doctors, nurses, all the types of people that live or work in the Department of Corrections. . . . Those people are all mothers and fathers and grandfathers and sons. . . . None of these people deserve the pain or suffering that the defendant is capable of inflicting. . . . Life without possibility of parole will afford him an opportunity...to harm others. . . . He’ll be free to do whatever he wants in prison, to inflict whatever pain he so desires.”
The argument was supported by the evidence, Werdegar concluded.
The case is People v. Demetrulias, 06 S.O.S. 3539.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company