Friday, February 16, 2007
S.C. Affirms Death Sentence for Man Who Killed Girlfriend’s Son
Justices Uphold Removal of Lone Holdout Juror Who Admitted Discussing Case With Spouse
By Kenneth Ofgang, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a San Diego man who admitted that he stabbed his girlfriend’s 11-year-old son while the boy was watching a television set the defendant wanted to steal in order to buy crack.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the court, said there was no reversible error at either the guilt or the penalty phase of Steven M. Bell’s trial for the killing of Joey Anderson. San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard M. Murphy—later the mayor of San Diego and now retired—sentenced Bell to death in 1994 after jurors found him guilty of first degree murder with a robbery special circumstance and returned a death penalty v verdict.
Bell was arrested after he approached a police officer who was directing traffic the day after the killing, displayed a newspaper with an article about the crime, told the officer who he was, and said he did not kill Joey. He eventually admitted the killing to detectives.
At trial, the defense contended that the killing occurred during a psychotic break caused by smoking crack. Prosecutors acknowledged that Bell had been smoking crack, but their experts testified that Bell had not smoked enough crack, close enough to the time of the killing, to have produced the type of total break with reality that the defense experts described.
In seeking the death penalty, prosecutors presented evidence that Bell had committed a similar stabbing, severely injuring the victim, while smoking PCP with schoolmates, as a teenager living in East Spanish Harlem in 1981. The defense depicted Bell as the product of a dysfunctional home who grew up in a drug-infested neighborhood and had tried to better himself by going to college, but had residual emotional difficulties.
The high court rejected the defense contention that Murphy erred in denying a mistrial after an agitated juror complained that she was in “psychological pain” as a result of being “intimidated” because she was unprepared to concur with the other 11 jurors that the robbery special circumstance had been proven.
The juror later apologized for her comments in court, but explained in a two-page letter that she was “close to an emotional breakdown” and was upset about the personal nature of the criticism she had received. She also acknowledged that her need for emotional support had become so great that she knowingly violated the court’s instructions by telling her husband about the case and the deliberations.
Werdegar said the judge acted within his discretion when he decided to replace the juror rather than declare a mistrial.
“While the trial court has a duty to avoid coercing the jury to reach a verdict, we have held that inquiry as to the possibility of agreement is ‘not a prerequisite to denial of a motion for mistrial,’” the justice commented. “Moreover, the jury in this case had deliberated less than two full days, around 10 hours; we have upheld courts’ denials of mistrials even after fruitless deliberations for longer periods.”
Werdegar also rejected a contention that two women had been peremptorily challenged because they were lesbians. The defense failed to make a prima facie case, the justice said, because it did not show that the women were in fact lesbians or that the prosecution perceived them to be lesbians, or that other factors suggested that the challenges were biased.
The case is People v. Bell, 07 S.O.S. 800.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company