Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, June 5, 2007


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S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Oakland Killings Along Interstate

Justices, With Two Dissents, Say ‘Lying-in-Wait’ Special Circumstance Instruction Was Valid




An instruction to a capital case jury that it could find true the special circumstance of lying in wait if the defendant waited for his victim long enough “to show a state of mind equivalent to premeditation or deliberation” was not constitutionally flawed, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the court, rejected contentions by attorneys for Charles Stevens, convicted of four murders and six attempted murders that occurred on or near I-580 in Oakland between and April and July of 1989.

One argument was that the lying-in-wait instruction was vague and would render any defendant convicted of first degree murder subject to the death penalty, contrary to U.S. Supreme Court rulings requiring that the capital sentencing process narrow the class of defendants subject to the death sentence.

Kennard and Moreno Dissent

 While the decision to uphold the death sentence for Stevens was unanimous, the ruling on the lying-in-wait instruction was not. Justice Carlos Moreno argued that it was unconstitutional, while Justice Joyce L. Kennard disagreed but said it did not fit the evidence in this case; both, however, agreed that the death sentence would have been imposed regardless, based on the special circumstance of multiple murder.

Stevens was apprehended after one of the attempted murder victims, who was not struck by any of three shots Stevens fired at him, pursued his assailant and watched as he shot and killed another driver. Rodney Stokes called 911, leading police to stop and question Stevens, whom they arrested.

A search of his person produced a gun that was determined to be definitely or possibly the weapon used in each of the prior shootings. Police later searched his residence and seized gun paraphernalia, as well as newspaper clippings about the shootings.

The lying-in-wait circumstance was based on the killing of the last victim, Raymond August. Prosecutors noted the similarity of the attempt on Stokes and the killing of August, the perpetrator in each instance driving alongside the victim’s car, signaling him to slow down as if the two knew each other, and then shooting.

In the penalty phase, the prosecution presented evidence of three uncharged incidents of actual or threatened violence—a June 1987 “road rage” incident in which Stevens shot at the other motorist, an incident while in jail awaiting trial in which the defendant threw a milk carton at a sheriff’s deputy and threatened him with a tray; and a threat directed at a prosecution witness while being transported to court.

Stevens was also convicted of three prior offenses, all auto thefts.

Mitigating Evidence

The defense countered with evidence that Stevens’ mother Stevens’ mother was abusive and a heavy drinker, that an older brother was convicted of murder in 1978, and that Stevens suffered from a personality disorder and was of less-than-average intelligence, although he was not retarded or mentally ill.

In concluding that the lying-in-wait instruction was proper, Corrigan said the evidence showed that there was “an adequate period of watching and waiting” before August was shot.

The justice also rejected the contention that prosecutors had discriminated on the basis of race by disqualifying several African Americans from the jury on peremptory challenges. Those venire members, Corrigan said, had demonstrated that they were far more hostile than the seated jurors to the possibility of imposing the death penalty.

In separate opinions, Kennard argued that the lying-in-wait instruction should have required a substantial period of watching and waiting, while Moreno complained that “the meaning and significance of this circumstance has not been interpreted with sufficient intellectual rigor, notwithstanding the fact that its application in a given case may mean the difference between life and death.”

 The case is People v. Stevens, 07 S.O.S. 2972.


Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company