Friday, March 23, 2007
S.C. Upholds Death Penalty Instruction on Commutation Power
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A judge did not abuse his discretion by telling jurors that a death sentence—or a life sentence without possibility of parole—could be commuted, but that they should not consider that fact, or the conditions of the defendant’s incarceration, in determining sentence, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The ruling came in an opinion by Justice Marvin Baxter for a unanimous court, which affirmed John Michael Beames’ sentence for the murder of his girlfriend’s 15-month-old daughter. Prosecutors said Beames had been beating the child for days or weeks before she succumbed, and jurors found that the murder was intentional and involved the infliction of torture.
The victim, Cassie McMains, bled to death due to a severe blow to her liver, an autopsy showed. Doctors testified that she had suffered numerous injuries over a period that began more than six months before the fatal blow.
At one point, the child had been removed from the home and placed with her maternal grandparents. But she was returned to her mother, who was living with Beames, a month before her death.
In the intervening weeks, the child was seen with a burn on her finger and “real bad black eyes,” and appeared to be afraid of Beames, witnesses testified.
The child’s aunt testified that she went to the house on the day the child died, at the request of Cassie’s mother, Angelita McMains, and that Beames told her the child had gotten sick in her bed early in the morning, and that when he went to get fresh seats, she fell over and was lying in a pool of blood.
Death Allegedly Accidental
McMains had been away from the house because she was spending 24 hours a day at a hospital where her other child, an infant son, was being treated.
He said he had performed CPR for five hours, the witness testified, but that she had died. He asked for “a little bit of time” before police were called.
Later that night, he made a tape recording, which the child’s mother and aunt gave to a deputy sheriff. On the tape, Beames claimed that the child’s death “was an accident” and insisted “I love this little baby better than anything in the world.”
Deputies, after observing blood in the baby’s crib and in the bathroom of the residence, went looking for Beames, who had apparently left with the child’s corpse. They found him at a friend’s house, and found the body in the back of his car.
Later, a deputy testified, he spontaneously stated “I was the only one with her. I’m responsible. Put me in jail. Put a .45 to my head.”
The defense claimed that the fatal injury was accidental, and that the child had been hated and neglected by her mother, who left Beames to care for her. Beames, who admitted he had been convicted of three prior felonies, including armed robbery and armed burglary, and used methamphetamine, testified that the mother was with the child when she was injured as a result of having a tool-laden cart fall on top of her.
He did not call the police, he said, because there was no telephone in the house. He also said he had been using drugs, had been awake for days, and was not thinking clearly.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence of past incidents of violence, including testimony linking Beames to the killing of a friend who had disappeared after telling his family he was going to Beames’ place of business to try and collect a debt Beames owed him.
During deliberation in the penalty phase, the jury submitted a series of questions:
“Life in Prison? Dose [sic] life in prison without parole really mean without parole forever? What priviledges [sic] would he have? family visitations? girl friends? isolation or general population? Death Row? Do you get visitors? Are you ever with any of the other inmates for meals or exercise?”
After conferring with counsel, and over defense objection, Tulare Superior Court Judge Ronn M. Couillard told the jury in writing:
“The Governor has commutation power and this commutation power applies to both sentences, that of life in prison without parole and the death penalty. However, the jury is not to consider this commutation power in arriving at a verdict in the penalty phase. The jury must not assume anything other than death means death by execution and life without parole means imprisonment for the rest of the defendant’s natural life.
“In arriving at a verdict in the penalty phase the jury is not to speculate or consider living conditions in the prison as these are matters which must not affect your verdict in any way.”
The instruction was correct, Baxter wrote for the high court.
“It is now firmly established that a court in a capital case does not err when it answers a jury question generally related to the commutation power by instructing...that the Governor may commute either a death sentence or a life without possibility of parole sentence, but that the jury must not consider the possibility of commutation in determining the appropriate sentence,” the justice explained.
Baxter acknowledged that, unlike in earlier cases addressing the issue, the jury had inquired about parole, not about the commutation power.
“We have held, however, that commutation instructions are properly given when the jury +implicitly+ raises the issue of commutation,” he explained.
The jurist added that the judge was not required to “exhaustively” instruct the jury on commutation, such as by explaining that because of his prior convictions, Beames could not receive clemency without the agreement of the Supreme Court or by telling jurors that there have been no commutations of death sentences since the current death penalty statute was enacted.
The case is People v. Beames, 07 S.O.S. 1322.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company