Tuesday, July 31 2007
Justices Uphold Death Sentence for Berkeley Official Who Killed and Dismembered Colleague in 1988
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a former member of the Berkeley Waterfront Commission, convicted of killing a colleague in order to prevent him from testifying against the defendant in an assault case.
In a 6-1 decision, the court rejected Enrique Zambrano’s claim that his lawyers were improperly prevented from questioning potential jurors as to whether they would necessarily impose the death penalty after hearing that the victim was dismembered.
Zambrano was convicted in Alameda County Superior Court of killing Luis Reyna and beating UC Berkeley immunology professor Robert Mishell and his wife, Barbara, whom Zambrano suspected of making harassing telephone calls to his wife about an affair with another woman.
Zambrano admitted that he had told Reyna, a friend and fellow commissioner, about the January 1988 beatings of the Mishells at their Berkeley home. They were beaten so badly, with what Zambrano said was a hammer used to tenderize meats, that Robert Mishell had to retire and his wife lost the ability to speak.
Reyna kept silent at first, but then went to police with the story.
Zambrano, who was released on bail in the assault case, admitted killing Reyna. But he denied doing so to silence him as a witness, saying that when he went to talk to Reyna, his colleague unexpectedly produced a gun and was shot in the ensuing struggle.
He had no reason to kill Reyna, he said, because Reyna was planning to retract his statement implicating Zambrano in the assaults. He dismembered the body in a panic, he said.
Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the high court, said the prosecutor may have argued improperly in telling jurors that the Bible not only makes it man’s duty to impose the death penalty but “demands it” to preserve the sanctity of human life. “We recently have suggested or assumed that prosecutorial arguments substantially similar to the one at issue here are improper,” Baxter wrote.
The justice concluded, however, that there was no prejudice because the remarks were not a major part of the prosecution’s death penalty argument but were made in the context of a proper line of reasoning about aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
Baxter also rejected the defense contention that Judge Stanley Golde, now deceased, erred in barring counsel from asking prospective jurors if they would automatically impose the death penalty because the victim was decapitated and dismembered.
Barring such questioning, the justice said, was within the discretion of the trial judge and caused no prejudice in the context of the voir dire as a whole. There was, he said, no showing that a reasonable juror who would otherwise vote against the death penalty would “invariably” vote in favor based on the dismemberment evidence alone.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Joyce Kennard argued that the both the biblical references in the prosecutor’s argument and the judge’s rejection of voir dire on the dismemberment question were prejudicial, warranting a new penalty trial.
The case is People v. Zambrano, 07 S.O.S. 4707.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company