Friday, May 18, 2007
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence of Man Who Blurted ‘I Am Guilty’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Sacramento man who drew widespread headlines when he raised his hand at a pretrial hearing and blurted out “I am guilty” was properly sentenced to death for six murders, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices rejected the contention that Sacramento Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Cecil should not have allowed jurors at Eric Royce Leonard’s trial to hear about his incriminating comment at the hearing on his motion for change of venue, which was denied.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the court, said that Leonard’s comment was not an “offer to plead guilty,” which would make it inadmissible under Evidence Code Sec. 1153.
“We agree with the trial court that defendant’s in-court outburst declaring that he was guilty was not a ‘bona fide offer to plead guilty’...but simply an ‘unsolicited admission’...that was not made inadmissible by Evidence Code section 1153,” the justice wrote. “Defendant did not say he wanted to enter a plea of guilty; that is, to formally admit that he had committed each of the charged crimes. Rather, he said he was guilty, without explaining what he was guilty of. No plea negotiations were underway, and to exclude statements of this kind would not encourage the settlement of criminal cases.”
The jury convicted Leonard of the six murders with which he was charged, which took place during two robberies one week apart in February 1991.
The first robbery, in which three people were killed, took place at a Quik Stop convenience market, the second, resulting in three more deaths, at a Round Table Pizza restaurant.
Media coverage suggested that the crimes had been committed by a “thrill killer” rather than for money, although evidence at trial suggested that currency had been taken in both robberies and that Leonard wasn’t making enough money to pay his living expenses and had resorted to bad-check-writing in the period leading up to the crimes.
Leonard was arrested months later, following an investigation that included interviews with hundreds of people. Police first became interested in Leonard when they saw him walking near the Quik Stop two days after the Round Table robberies.
A detective testified at trial that Leonard admitted having been near the scenes of both killings on the nights in question, but denied any involvement. The officer said he thought at the time that Leonard—who has an IQ of less than 100 and has suffered from epilepsy nearly all his life—was too timid and mentally disoriented to be a likely suspect in the murders.
The police said they took further interest, however, after interviewing several others who saw a man wearing a trench coat near the murder scenes on the nights in question. Four of those witnesses saw a photograph of Leonard, who was wearing a trench coat the first time the police spoke to him, and said he appeared to be the man they saw.
After interviewing Leonard again, they went to his father’s house and obtained a .25-caliber Baretta pistol, which ballistics tests showed to be the murder weapon. His father, one of the detectives testified, told the detective that Leonard had confessed, although the father denied at trial that he had ever made such a statement.
In challenging the death sentence on appeal, Leonard’s court-appointed attorney argued that it would constitute cruel and unusual punishment to execute a young man—he was 21 at the time of the murders—who is epileptic and developmentally disabled. But Kennard, writing for the high court, said there were sufficient aggravating circumstances to support the judge and jury’s decision.
“We acknowledge the seriousness of defendant’s disabilities, but nonetheless defendant committed two robberies during which he murdered six people by shooting them in the head, and to ensure the deaths of two of his victims he fired at close range, holding the gun less than two inches from their heads,” the jurist wrote. “On these facts, the death sentence is not grossly disproportionate to defendant’s culpability.”
The court yesterday also upheld another death sentence, from San Bernardino County.
Joseph Lloyd Cook was sentenced to death for murdering an octogenarian Joshua Tree couple while burglarizing their home in 1992. Cook, who had worked for the victims, was implicated after he sold some of the victims’ property to his brother and was seen standing near their car, which was driven away after they were murdered.
Cook’s palm print was found on the vehicle, and blood splatter consistent with that of one of the victims was found on his shoe.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court, rejected a number of challenges to the verdict and sentence, including a claim that identification of the defendant as the man standing near the victims’ vehicle should have been suppressed because the witnesses picked him out of a lineup at which he was not represented by counsel.
The U.S. Supreme Court, Chin explained, has ruled that there is no right to counsel at a lineup held prior to the filing of formal charges. The fact that Cook had already been in custody for a week, based on a parole hold tied to his arrest, does not change the constitutional analysis, the justice said.
Chin acknowledged that under the California Constitution, there is a right to counsel at a pre-indictment lineup. The justice explained, however, that under Proposition 8, evidence cannot be excluded solely on the ground that it was obtained in violation of state law.
The cases are People v. Leonard, 07 S.O.S. 2437, and People v. Cook, 07 S.O.S. 2458.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company