Friday, December 7, 2007
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Rape and Murder of Valley Woman
Justices Approve Admission of Videotape Tribute to Victim During Penalty Phase
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge did not abuse his discretion in allowing a jury to view a videotape tribute to a murder victim during the penalty phase of her killer’s trial, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Showing a 20-minute video about Sara Weir’s life, narrated by her mother and introduced during the mother’s victim impact testimony, “was relevant and, because the presentation was not unduly emotional, permissible.”
Weir was stabbed more than two dozen times. Her nude and decomposed body was found under a bed in a bedroom at a North Hollywood apartment that Douglas Kelly had shared with his girlfriend, identified only as Michelle T.
Evidence of Assault
Michelle T. said she had been living there with Kelly but told him not to return after she found evidence he had been there with another woman, but that he forced his way in, “almost broke [the front door] off the hinges,” and assaulted her.
Michelle T. summoned police, who arrested Kelly, who was released two days later after pleading guilty to a domestic violence charge and being sentenced to time served.
His release became an issue in the 1997 city attorney’s race, when challenger Ted Stein, with backing from Weir’s mother, claimed that liberal plea bargaining under then-City Attorney James K. Hahn was responsible for Weir’s murder, which occurred about a week after Kelly got out of jail.
Hahn, who won that race and was elected mayor four years later, said the deputy who negotiated the disposition acted appropriately based on the information available to him at the time.
Neither the court nor the prosecutor was aware at the time that Kelly was wanted for rape in Florida. Publicity about the case was cited as contributing to the development of the Consolidated Criminal History Reporting System, or “Cheers,” a computer network that instantly allows a judge to determine, among other things, if a defendant is wanted in another jurisdiction, has been identified as carrying a communicable disease, or has a mental health problem.
Michelle T. told police that Weir’s body had apparently been placed in the apartment after Kelly’s release made her fear for her safety and she moved in with her sister. A pair of bloodstained scissors, possibly the murder weapon, was found in the apartment a few days after the body was discovered.
Arrested at Border
Kelly was arrested and held in Laredo, Tex. after attempting to return to the United States from Mexico. He had two checks with him at the time that were drawn on Sara Weir’s account and bore purported signatures of Weir that were apparently forged.
Weir’s car was found in Mexico.
Prosecutors said Weir’s killing was the culmination of a pattern in which Kelly met and socialized with women, convinced them that he was a man of means, and persuaded them to come home with him, then proceeded to rape and rob them. Two of his previous victims testified in the guilt phase of the trial and one in the penalty phase.
In overruling the defense objection to the videotape, Judge Michael Hoff said he had viewed the entire tape and saw nothing in it that could not testified to. He called it “very compelling” and said it had “more probative value than any prejudicial effect.”
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the Supreme Court, agreed that the tape was admissible. He cited People v. Prince (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1179, in which the court upheld the admission of victim impact evidence in the form of a videotape of an approximately 25-minute interview with one of the murder victims conducted at a local television station.
Chin distinguished cases in other jurisdictions holding that videotaped tributes to homicide victims should not have been admitted. All of those cases, the justice said, involved presentations that were unduly long, emphasized the victim’s childhood, and/or were accompanied by stirring music.
The justice agreed that trial judges must be “very cautious” in admitting such evidence, particularly where there is a great deal of other victim impact evidence.
Here, however, Weir’s mother was the only victim-impact witness, and the tape was highly relevant and not unduly prejudicial in the context of the evidence as a whole, Chin concluded.
“In particular, the videotape helped the jury to see that defendant took away the victim’s ability to enjoy her favorite activities, to contribute to the unique framework of her family — she was of Native American descent and adopted into a Caucasian home — and to fulfill the promise to society that someone with such a stable and loving background can bring,” he wrote.
“The videotape further illustrated the gravity of the loss by showing Sara’s fresh-faced appearance before she died,” Chin continued. “...Her demeanor is something words alone could not capture. Such images corroborated evidence at the guilt phase, that could be considered in aggravation of penalty, suggesting that defendant preyed on Sara’s naïve and trusting nature. Jurors could reasonably, and relevantly, conclude that defendant, who betrayed and raped other young women, felt comfortable exercising the ultimate act of violence and control over someone as vulnerable as Sara.”
Chin acknowledged that the trial court might have exercised its discretion and ordered the elimination of unnecessary features of the video, including the background music and a scene at the end of horseback riding in the Canadian Rockies, with a voiceover in which the victim’s mother referred to the scene as the “kind of heaven” in which her daughter belonged.
But even if that portion of the tape should have been excised, there is no reasonable possibility that taking it out would have altered the death penalty verdict, Chin wrote.
His opinion was joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin Baxter, and Carol Corrigan.
Justices Kathryn M. Wedegar and Carlos Moreno concurred separately. Each criticized the trial judge’s decision to admit the entire videotape, but agreed with Chin that doing so was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case is People v. Kelly, 07 S.O.S. 7111.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company