Thursday, January 25, 2007
S.C. Upholds 50-Year-to-Life Sentence for Teenage Murderer
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday left standing the 50-year-to-life sentence imposed on a defendant who was 15 years old when two younger boys were killed on a La Crescenta schoolyard.
With Justice Carlos Moreno absent from yesterday’s conference in San Francisco and not participating, the court voted 6-0 to deny Michael Demirdjian’s petition for review. Div. Four of this district’s Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Norman Epstein, held that the sentence was proportionate to the seriousness of the crime and did not violate the state or federal constitution.
The circumstances under which 14-year-old Blaine Steven Talmo Jr. and 13-year-old Christopher McColloch were killed in 2000 were “particularly horrendous” and justified the harsh sentence that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen gave the killer, Epstein said.
The bludgeoned bodies of the two boys were found on the playground of Valley View Elementary School in La Crescenta. They died of blunt-force head trauma; a large rock was found next to Blaine’s head, Christopher had a 60-pound bench lying across his chest and neck; and their blood was all over the area.
Demirdjian’s lawyer acknowledged at trial that the defendant was at the scene, but claimed he was a mere witness to the crimes, which were committed by a drug dealer intent on robbing the boys. Prosecutors claimed that Demirdjian killed the boys in the course of the robbery, and that cuts on his hands and blood from one of the victims found in his home established that he was the killer and not merely a spectator.
Demirdjian’s first trial ended in a hung jury, but on retrial he was found guilty of the two murders, with special circumstances of multiple murder and murder by torture; a robbery-murder allegation was rejected.
Coen originally sentenced the defendant to two life terms without the possibility of parole, and the Court of Appeal affirmed in an unpublished 2003 opinion. The attorney general, however, subsequently conceded that the sentence was illegal because California law bars imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a defendant who was less than 16 years old at the time of the crime.
On resentencing, Coen imposed the mandatory sentences of 25 years to life and ordered that they be served consecutively.
Eighth Amendment Claim
Epstein rejected the contention that the consecutive sentences violated the Eighth Amendment, or the state constitutional equivalent, for reasons cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when it struck down the death penalty for minors.
The distinction between the death penalty and a life sentence is constitutionally significant, the presiding justice said, adding that the sheer brutality of the crimes may be enough to support a life sentence, even when the defendant was under 16 at the time.
Epstein distinguished People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441, which overturned the life sentence imposed on a 17-year-old who had no prior criminal record and shot a man he thought was about to shoot him.
Other Conference Action
The Court of Appeal, Epstein noted, distinguished Dillon in People v. Guinn (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 1130, which upheld a life-without-parole sentence for a 17-year-old who bludgeoned his victim with a baseball bat during a robbery.
Unlike the defendant in that case, Epstein noted, Demirdjian will eventually be eligible for parole. “If, as we previously held, a life sentence without possibility of parole is not constitutionally excessive, surely this one is not,” the jurist wrote.
In other conference action, the court:
•Agreed to decide whether an arbitration clause in an accounting firm’s retainer agreement, requiring that the client raise any claims of professional liability as a defense in arbitration proceedings over unpaid fees, bars the client from suing over malpractice that she allegedly discovered after the fee dispute had been resolved.
A divided panel of this district’s Div. Five held in Federici v. Gursey Schneider & Co., LLP, B183945, that the suit was barred under principles of res judicata and waiver.
The dissenting justice argued that the provision did not apply because the client did not dispute that she owed the fees, and that the provision was unconscionable because it did not permit the arbitrator to award damages on her liability claim in excess of what she owed in fees, instead requiring that she bring a post-arbitration suit in to collect the difference.
•Left standing a ruling by the First District’s Div. One that allegations that council members in the Bay Area city of Fremont had private discussions about a new police department policy on burglar alarm responses were sufficient to plead a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The court held that statements allegedly made by council members when the issue was taken up publicly created an inference that a decision not to interfere with the new policy had been taken in advance. The court noted that the act prohibits both secret meetings and “serial meetings”—a series of individual discussions, ultimately involving a majority of the members—of a local public body.
The case, decided Oct. 31, is Wolfe v. City of Fremont.
•Agreed to decide whether an appellate court must perform a “comparative juror analysis”—an evaluation of whether particular voir dire responses, used to justify removal of members of a particular race or gender from a jury panel, differed from those offered by venire members who were not removed—for the first time on appeal.
While two recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions hold that comparative juror analysis is an appropriate part of the constitutionally required inquiry into whether there was impermissible bias in the exercise of peremptory challenges, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held on Oct. 13 that such analysis is not required on appeal where none was requested by trial counsel or made by the trial judge.
That ruling came in an unpublished opinion in People v. Lenix, F048115.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company