Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Death Sentence Upheld in Killing of Bay Area Club Owner
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a man convicted of killing his business partner.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar said an Alameda Superior Court judge committed no reversible error at Steven Wayne Bonilla’s trials for the killing of Jerry Lee Harris, who owned several businesses in the East Bay area. Prosecutors said Bonilla, who owned 40 percent of a Pleasanton night club controlled by Harris, quarreled with the victim over the club’s operations and over Bonilla’s bid for an interest in other businesses.
Harris disappeared in October 1987, a rock hound found his body at a remote Nevada located two months later. His car was later located at the Sacramento airport.
Police investigation led to Bradley Keyes, who eventually admitted his involvement but said that Bonilla initiated the plot and that another man, William Nichols, was involved as well. Keyes agreed to plead guilty to being an accessory and to conspiracy, and to cooperate in the prosecution of Nichols and Bonilla.
He subsequently initiated several phone calls, which were recorded, discussing the killing with Nichols and Bonilla, who were eventually charged with capital murder. Their first trial resulted in both defendants being convicted of first degree murder with financial-gain and lying-in-wait special circumstances, but jurors deadlocked as to penalty.
At a second trial, limited to penalty, prosecutors presented testimony from witnesses, including Bonilla’s wife, of numerous uncharged violent crimes. Bonilla was accused of burning down a business he owned for insurance money, of beating his wife and threatening to shoot her because he thought she slept with another man, and of plotting to kill his previous wife and her new husband.
Prosecutors also presented testimony from Shelton McDaniels, who occupied the cell next to Bonilla’s after the first trial. McDaniels testified that Bonilla told him he had paid someone to kill Keyes, but “the guy just took off with his money.”
McDaniels further testified that he agreed to put Bonilla in touch with someone who would kill Harris’ widow, who was in litigation with Bonilla at the time. Bonilla said if Susan Harris were dead, he could get control of his money and use it to pay for Keyes’ killing, thus preventing Keyes from testifying at the second trial, McDaniels testified.
The plot failed, witnesses said, because Susan Harris found out about it and went into hiding, and because Bonilla could not come up with the money.
Nichols testified at the second trial, admitting that he received money from Bonilla, but saying that he never actually intended to kill Harris and that the victim accidentally suffocated while tied up in the back of a truck.
Jurors returned a death penalty verdict for Bonilla, but deadlocked again as to Nichols, who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole after prosecutors declined to press for a third trial.
On appeal, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the Supreme Court, identified only one possible error by Superior Court Judge Benjamin Travis.
During the penalty trial, the judge—outside the presence of the jury—sustained a hearsay objection to testimony by McDaniels regarding a discussion concerning the possible kidnapping of Bonilla’s sister in retaliation for Bonilla’s failure to come up with the money for the Susan Harris kidnapping.
Werdegar said the judge arguably erred in failing to instruct the jury to disregard the testimony. But the omission was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, she concluded.
“There is no reasonable probability exclusion of the testimony about a third party’s inchoate criminal designs would have made a difference,” the justice wrote. “The real issue at the penalty phase was how to weigh the circumstances of the crime, its impact on the victims, and Bonilla’s pattern of conspiring to kill those with whom he disagreed against his family’s pleas for mercy and compassion. It is inconceivable this one statement on a tangential matter in a four-month trial tipped the balance “
The case is People v. Bonilla, 07 S.O.S. 3226.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company