Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Man Whose Death Sentence Was Vacated by S.C. Gets Life Term
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A South Los Angeles gang member convicted of killing a Hawthorne liquor store owner was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole yesterday, four years after his original death sentence was overturned by the state Supreme Court.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury last year found Omar Dent III, 44, guilty of first degree murder with a robbery special circumstance, but deadlocked as to penalty, with 8 of 12 jurors favoring his execution. A third trial was averted after prosecutors took the death penalty off the table and Dent waived all rights of appeal.
Dent was originally sentenced to death by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shook following a 1991 conviction. But the state’s highest court unanimously threw out the conviction and sentence in 2003, saying Shook violated the defendant’s constitutional rights by not allowing him to represent himself.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, now a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, said the court had to reversal “under compulsion of Faretta v. California (1975) 422 U.S. 806.”
While all seven justices signed Brown’s opinion for the court, Brown and Justices Ming Chin and Marvin Baxter joined in a separate concurrence that urged the nation’s highest court to reconsider whether judges should be required to allow defendants in capital cases to represent themselves.
Granting a second trial to Dent, who faced overwhelming evidence against him, “is hard to explain in any rational manner,” Chin wrote for the three. His defense lawyers did at least as good a job for him at trial as he could have done himself, Chin argued, yet he was entitled to a new trial, with the right to counsel if he chose.
(He was represented at the retrial by Kelly Buck and Jerome Haig of the Alternate Public Defender’s Torrance office.)
Dent was convicted of robbing and killing Byung Kim, fleeing in his van and shooting a retired police officer who gave chase, in August 1988. Prosecutors said Dent ambushed the 40-year-old merchant after he withdrew $80,000 from a Lawndale bank in order to cash checks for customers.
The defendant, who was identified as a member of the Eight-Trey Crips gang, also was convicted in 1983 of involuntary manslaughter and was on parole—he reportedly was recommitted twice for parole violations after serving his original term—when he killed Kim.
The earlier conviction resulted from the shooting death of a patron at a takeout chicken eatery. Investigators said Dent apparently tried to rob the victim, and charged him with first degree murder, but prosecutors said they agreed to a manslaughter plea for fear their witnesses would be too afraid to testify.
In the Kim case, Dent was assigned Halvor Miller and Charles Maple as his defense lawyers, and after several continuances the case was set for trial on March 6, 1991. But Miller was in another murder trial, so Shook agreed, on March 5, that Maple could try the case alone if the defendant agreed.
The next day, however, Maple—who said he misunderstood what time he was supposed to be present—was more than an hour late.
Lawyers ‘Too Busy’
The judge, recounting a history of continuances and failures to appear, relieved the two lawyers, and told Dent that it was “clear and apparent to this court that they are just simply too busy to pay attention to your case and to give your case the attention that it deserves.”
“You must be represented by attorneys that are senior trial attorneys. And you have got to have people here to represent you. You cannot represent yourself in this matter. So that’s what I want to do and those are the reasons that I am doing it.”
Maple, after speaking to Dent, objected. The attorney said that Dent wanted him to proceed, and that if he could not have Maple as his lawyer, “the alternative he proposes to the court is that he proceed in pro. per.”
“I am not going to let him proceed pro. per....Not in a death penalty murder trial.”
Dent told the judge he would rather represent himself than be saddled with two new attorneys who were unfamiliar with his case, but Shook rebuffed him and suggested he not speak further, lest he incriminate himself.
Brown, writing for the high court, said the judge got it wrong. Whether the defendant is facing the death penalty or not has no bearing on his rights under Faretta, she said.
The state argued on appeal that Dent did not unequivocally exercise his right of self-representation, saying he did not object to the subsequent appointment of new attorneys. But in view of the judge’s previous comments, Brown said, the defendant may have felt that any objection was futile.
Dent was convicted again in April of last year.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company