Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Court Rejects Claims of Juror Bias, Upholds Death Sentence
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Overruling a U.S. district judge, an en banc panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the death sentence for the killer of a USC student librarian.
The court rejected the contention that a juror at the trial of Stevie Lamar Fields was biased as a result of his wife having been raped and kidnapped—similar to the crimes of which Stevie Lamar Fields was convicted. The panel also ruled that a juror who shared various references to the Bible during deliberations did not commit misconduct requiring a new penalty trial.
The panel voted 12-3 to uphold the conviction and 9-6 to uphold the death sentence.
Fields, 49, has been on death row for more than a quarter century for killing and robbing 26-year-old Rosemary Cobbs in 1978. He was also convicted of crimes against four other victims—including rape, robbery, kidnapping, and assault with a deadly weapon—during a three-week crime spree that began just two weeks after he was paroled from prison, where he had served a term for manslaughter.
The California Supreme Court rejected his appeal and his habeas corpus petition. But when he sought habeas corpus relief in federal court, U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian—who has since retired—concluded that the penalty phase deliberations had been “contaminated.”
At issue were arguments for and against the death penalty that the jury foreperson wrote on a board, including the Biblical quotations “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man” and “He that smiteth a man, so that he dies, shall surely be put to death.”
The arguments against the death penalty were based on secularly based arguments, such as the possibility of rehabilitation, lack of deterrence, and the risk of executing an innocent person.
Tevrizian’s ruling on the death penalty was overturned last year by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, but a majority of the court’s unrecused active judges voted for the rehearing by a 15-judge en banc panel.
Judge Pamela Rymer, writing for the court, said the foreperson’s comments were matters of general knowledge and not improper. The foreperson, she explained, was entitled to share those views just as jurors may use other matters of personal knowledge in the jury room, such as where a juror with medical knowledge explains to others how to read an X-ray, which the Ninth Circuit has ruled is permissible.
The judge elaborated:
“Fields correctly points out that we have held it is improper and prejudicial for the prosecution to invoke God or to paraphrase a Biblical passage in closing argument in the penalty phase of a capital case....However, the prosecutor is constrained in ways that a juror is not.”
The Ninth Circuit has overturned a death sentence, Rymer explained, where a prosecutor’s argument could have been taken to suggest that the penalty verdict should be based on “higher law” rather than on the judge’s instructions, and that the jury was not itself responsible for the verdict it returned.
“None of these considerations applies in similar fashion to a juror; what may be improper or prejudicial when said by a prosecutor may not be so when said by a juror,” the judge wrote.
Even if the use of the quotes was misconduct, Rymer went on to say, it did not affect the sentence imposed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bonnie Lee Martin, who subsequently retired and is now deceased.
Given the “powerful” evidence of aggravating circumstances and the fact that the jurors saw no need to ask the judge for help with the instructions, Rymer said, it could not be concluded that the quotes “had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the verdict in this case.”
Rymer also rejected the contention that the guilty verdict was tainted by bias on the part of a juror, Floyd Hilliard, whose wife had been robbed, raped, and beaten two years before the trial.
The juror, Rymer explained, had been honest with the court, answering during voir dire that his wife had been “assaulted and beaten, robbed,” although he did not mention that she had been accosted at gunpoint by a black man in his early 20s, driven to a secluded area and raped, or that she feared that Fields might be the man who accosted her.
Emphasizing that it was his wife, not the juror, who suffered through the experience, and that the juror did not claim to believe that Fields was his wife’s assailant, the appellate jurist agreed with prosecutors that in the absence of dishonesty, there was no basis for implying bias.
While appellate rulings in recent years have expanded the definition of implied juror bias, those cases were decided after Fields lost his direct appeal, meaning they are considered “new law” and cannot be applied in Fields’ habeas corpus proceedings, Rymer said.
Rymer’s opinion was joined by Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder and Judges Alex Kozinski, Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, Barry G. Silverman, Richard Tallman, Richard Clifton, Consuelo Callahan, and Carlos Bea.
Judges M. Margaret McKeown, Kim M. Wardlaw, and Ronald Gould joined Rymer’s opinion other than with respect to the penalty phase deliberations.
Gould, writing for the three, argued that Fields is entitled to a new penalty trial.
“Appealing to the wisdom of the Bible, as admirable as it is in other contexts, is beyond doubt jury misconduct when the jury is given by the foreman written and selected quotations from the Bible, which were not introduced into evidence through a witness or subjected to cross-examination, to aid in and influence jury deliberations,” Gould wrote. This was no different than introducing extrinsic evidence, the judge argued, and thus was misconduct.
The judge accused the majority of “wishful thinking” in concluding that the jury was not swayed by the use of Biblical arguments in support of the death sentence. He cited juror declarations suggesting that the discussion of those arguments took up about 70 percent of the penalty phase deliberations, and that jurors were initially deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of life imprisonment without parole.
While acknowledging that Fields was guilty of “horrific” crimes, Gould wrote:
“The last thing that this country needs, and a thing inconsistent with our constitutional traditions and the paramount role of the jury in our criminal justice system, is to have a theocratic jury room in which a jury foreman can present the jury with notes compiled from the Bible with a selected ‘pro and con’ on the death penalty in light of scripture. The majority fails to realize that a written appeal to ‘higher law’ of the Bible in the jury room by tendering notes to the jurors that were not admitted in evidence or tested by cross-examination is inconsistent with the carefully wrought scheme by which the Supreme Court has held that the ultimate penalty of death can be meted out by a jury when the rules are followed.”
Judge Marsha Berzon, joined by Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Sidney Thomas, argued in dissent that Fields was entitled to a new trial as to his guilt because Hilliard’s presence on the jury deprived him of a fair trial.
Given the seriousness of the attack on his wife, the similarity of that incident to the crimes charged against Fields, the “extreme” and lingering nature of his wife’s distress”— stoked by the fear that the unknown perpetrator would return” and his wife’s repeated suggestions that it was Fields who had attacked her, the judge wrote, “the strain from the combination of these facts was far too likely to affect Floyd Hilliard’s deliberative process whether he so recognized or not,” Berzon wrote.
The case was argued in the Ninth Circuit by David S. Olson of Sherman Oaks’ Kulik, Gottesman, Mouton & Siegel for the defendant and by Deputy Attorney General Kristofer Jorstad for the prosecution.
The case is Fields v. Brown, 00-99005.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company