Friday, June 13, 2008
Court Approves Inter-County Joinder of Killer’s Murder Charges
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Alleged serial sex-killer Rodney James Alcala’s single trial for five murders in two counties may proceed in Orange County, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Although the charged murders originated in widely separate areas of Los Angeles and Orange counties, the court concluded intercounty joinder was proper, and unanimously reversed an appellate court order severing two of the Los Angeles County-based murder charges.
Alcala was charged with the 1979 kidnapping and murder of Robin Samsoe, a 12-year-old Huntington Beach girl, as well as the murders of four other young women killed in Los Angeles County between November of 1977 and June of 1979. Each charge alleged a separate death-qualifying special circumstance.
The Los Angeles victims were adults ranging in age from 18 to 32, and three of their bodies were discovered indoors relatively soon after their deaths. All displayed evidence of sexual assault, and most, if not all, appeared to have been placed in a posed position.
Samsoe’s body was discovered on a remote hillside and was too badly decomposed to permit a determination as to whether she had been sexually assaulted. Although her body may have been disturbed by wild animals, there was no evidence that it was left in a posed position.
Sentenced to Death
Alcala was initially found guilty of the Samsoe murder and sentenced to death. That conviction was reversed in 1984, when the California Supreme Court established a new standard for admitting evidence of other crimes.
The case turned out to have political implications, as the victim’s mother recorded a television commercial urging voters to reject three members of the high court majority who were facing retention in 1986. Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso were ousted, the only members of the high court ever denied new terms by the voters.
Alcala was again convicted and sentenced to death, and the state high court affirmed in 1992. But U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson ordered a third trial, saying that defense counsel was ineffective and that the trial judge unduly hampered the defense presentation of evidence, and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Evidence introduced at one of the earlier trials indicated that Alcala had been in the area near the time Samsoe vanished, and jail inmates testified that Alcala had spoken to other inmates about her.
Orange Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno denied Alcala’s motion to sever the Los Angeles-based charges, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal ordered the two cases severed.
The appellate court held that two cases possessed fewer “marks of similarity” compared with the three other charges, and it accepted Alcala’s assertion that a single trial of all five murder charges, would be “potentially unfair.”
But Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote that the Fourth District’s decision had failed to accord proper deference to the trial court’s decision and that Alcala had failed to carry his burden of establishing clear prejudice resulting from the joinder.
Penal Code Sec. 790(b) allows joinder of special-circumstance murder charges arising in different counties, along with factually related lesser charges, if the murders are “connected together in their commission.”
The test, George wrote, is whether there is a common element of substantial importance in the commission of each crime.
Despite the factual differences between the Los Angeles county murders and the Samsoe murder, George reasoned that the murders each shared numerous common elements, citing evidence that each of the victims was a young, single Caucasian female who had suffered blunt-force trauma to the face, and that all of the victims were discovered partially or fully unclothed.
Even though there was no evidence of sexual assault with Samsoe, based on her unclothed remains and Alcala’s comments to other inmates, George opined there was no rational explanation for her abduction other than an unlawful sexual purpose.
Each of the crimes displayed evidence of a common intent to brutally kill young females, George concluded, and the cumulative evidence connected the five murder charges and justified their joinder.
He further noted that the evidence underlying the four Los Angeles charges would be relevant at the Samsoe trial to demonstrate the mental states of premeditation and deliberation required for murder, and that such evidence would be cross-admissible at the Samsoe trial.
The cross-admissibility of the evidence was not “‘unusually likely to inflame’” a jury because the evidence underlying each charge was “‘similar in nature and equally gruesome,’” George wrote, and the evidence of Alcala’s guilt for the murder and death-qualifying special circumstances in each case was “quite strong” as well.
As a result, he reasoned, joining the cases would not impermissibly bolster a weak case with a stronger one, nor present a situation which would “convert” a non-capital case into a capital case, and Alcala failed to clearly show prejudice that would justify severance.
Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin R. Baxter, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Ming W. Chin, Carlos R. Moreno, and Carol A. Corrigan joined George in his opinion.
The case is Alcala v. Superior Court (People), 08 S.O.S. 3437.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company