Friday, May 25, 2007
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Killing of Local Reporter
Victim’s Opposition to Death Penalty Irrelevant to Sentence, Justices Rule in Unanimous Decision
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a local resident for the 1996 murder of a one-time reporter for KPFK radio.
Witnesses, primarily his two accomplices, testified that Andrew Lancaster kidnapped and shot Michael Taylor in a dispute over a transmitter and other equipment for a planned microwave radio station.
Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court, rejected all of Lancaster’s challenges to the conviction and sentence, including a claim that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders should have allowed penalty-phase testimony about Taylor’s passionate opposition to the death penalty.
There was no merit, Corrigan said, to the defense argument that Taylor’s choice to “embrace mercy and compassion” was a mitigating circumstance. “The gravity of defendant’s crime was not extenuated by his victim’s idealism,” nor could such evidence be deemed proper rebuttal to testimony by the victim’s relatives in support of the death sentence.
Taylor, 45, was a former homeless resident of Los Angeles and an African American activist whohad hosted “Community Forum” on the left-leaning FM station. After leaving KPFK, he had planned to start an unlicensed radio station with two friends, Robert Marston and Tyrone Floyd, the pair testified.
Planned Radio Operation
Marston and Floyd explained that Lancaster, who also went by Hodari Lumumba but took the name Mustafa Ibn Talib after converting to Islam while in custody, was an associate of Mzee Shambulia, an activist who supposedly had offered to help fund the “people’s radio station.”
Marston said he and Taylor became concerned that Shambulia really did not want to work with them, and also that he wanted to start a commercial operation rather than a donor-financed, independent station, so they decided not to deliver any equipment to Shambulia’s group. When Shambulia sent Marston a $220 money order in April 1996, Marston returned it.
Taylor, Marston testified, told him that Lancaster had called him and threatened that “things would get rough” if they did not produce the equipment. A couple of days later, Taylor disappeared; a witness who heard gunshots called police, who found his body.
Police eventually arrested Lancaster, Shawn Alexander, and Jornay Rodriguez. Alexander, who pled guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a stipulated 15-year sentence, and Rodriguez, who pled guilty to first degree murder without special circumstances, carrying a 25-year-to-life sentence, both testified for the prosecution.
Friends of Taylor said that he had befriended all three men at a homeless shelter before bringing them into the radio-station plan.
Alexander and Rodriguez admitted kidnapping Taylor from his Crenshaw-area home at gunpoint and driving him to the crime scene, a lot in Compton. Both testified that Lancaster was the shooter.
Lancaster did not testify in the guilt phase, which resulted in his being convicted of first degree murder and kidnapping for purposes of extortion, with a kidnap-murder special circumstance.
In the penalty phase, prosecutor Eleanor Hunter—now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge—presented a witness who testified that Lancaster raped her in Maryland in 1986, when he was 14 and she was nine. Witnesses also testified that while in custody, Lancaster was found on one occasion in possession of a shank and that on another occasion, jail-made handcuff keys fashioned from small pieces of metal were found in his cell.
Lancaster testified that he was innocent, and that it was Shambulia, not him, who confronted the victim. He had political differences with Taylor, he said, but did not confront him over the radio station.
Jurors returned a death penalty verdict, and Pounders denied the automatic motion to modify the verdict, which followed a dramatic session at which Lancaster, who was carrying a Koran, according to a news account, admitted the crime, contrary to his testimony, and expressed remorse, while insisting that Taylor “was no saint.”
. Among the defense contentions on appeal was that the trial judge had “compelled” him to give up his right of self-representation and accept the appointment of Ron Rothman, who had originally been named as standby counsel, to try the case.
The argument was “meritless,” Corrigan said, because the record showed that Lancaster, after wavering several times between expressing a desire to be represented by counsel and to represent himself, in part because of restrictions placed on his access to materials after he was caught with the knife, ultimately accepted Rothman’s appointment.
Corrigan agreed with the defense on one evidentiary point—that Pounders should not have allowed testimony about the handcuff keys. Absent an actual escape attempt, such possession does not constitute criminal activity and thus is not an aggravating factor, the justice explained.
The error was, however, harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the justice said, because it was “trivial” in the context of the record as a whole.
The case was argued on appeal by Deputy Attorney General Zee Rodriguez and by court-appointed defense lawyer Roger Teich of San Francisco.
The case is People v. Lancaster, 07 S.O.S. 2633.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company