Friday, February 8, 2008
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Hawthorne Man in Torture Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence for a Hawthorne resident convicted of involvement in the 1996 kidnapping, torture, and murder of a Redondo Beach man.
Justice Kathryn M. Wedegar, writing for the court, said that three instructional errors by the Ventura Superior Court judge who sentenced Spencer R. Brasure to die were minor and could not have, separately or cumulatively, affected the jury’s verdict.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Brasure and his housemate, Billy Davis—who was tried separately and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole—kidnapped Guest, 20, and tortured him at their home, using a cattle prod and a broken beer bottle.
Doused With Gasoline
They eventually took him to an isolated recreation area in Ventura County where they doused him with gasoline and set him alight.
The men apparently thought Guest had stolen from them. He had also been in a fight with Davis. A third man, Matt Ormsby, also became involved in the killing and was sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment.
Prosecution witnesses also testified that Brasure had made incriminating statements and had threatened them after learning they were cooperating with authorities, and that he wrote letters from jail in violation of a court order that he not send letters to anyone other than his attorneys.
The defense presented testimony from a cellmate of Davis, suggesting that Davis was more heavily involved in the torture than the defendant.
Prior Violent Episodes
In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence of several prior episodes of criminal violence by Brasure, including one in which he shot at a man on two separate occasions, broke the same person’s windshield with a crowbar on another, and hit him with a pool cue, all because the man had argued with a friend of the defendant.
The defendant’s adopted sister testified that on several occasions when the defendant was between the ages of 12 and 17—she was five years younger—they took off all their clothes and lied on top of one another and that he threatened to beat her up if she did not cooperate or if she told.
The defense presented testimony from Brasure’s mother and other family members that he had a difficult childhood; was involved in fights at an early age; was constantly disciplined with a paddle by his mother, a heavy drinker; and attempted suicide as an 18-year-old after his girlfriend had an abortion against his wishes.
A psychiatrist said defendant’s had a predisposition to antisocial personality disorder because his mother rejected him and favored his siblings, and because of her drinking and harsh discipline, and because his father encouraged him to fight.
Jurors returned a death penalty verdict and Judge James Cloninger imposed the maximum sentence.
Error Claims Rejected
Werdegar rejected a number of claims of instructional error by the defense. But she agreed the judge may have erred by failing to modify the standard jury instruction on non-prosecution of accomplices to reflect the fact that two possible accomplices did not testify, by giving a special penalty phase instruction on the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances instead of the standard instruction, the language of which has since been held mandatory by the Supreme Court; and by failing to reinstruct the jury on evidentiary rules applicable to the penalty phase after telling the jury to disregard the instructions he gave in the guilt phase.
But none of those possible errors require reversal, the justice said, because the court had “concluded no prejudice arose from any of these possible errors, and...can discern no cumulative or synergistic effect arising from them.”
The court also rejected the contention that the defendant was entitled to the benefit of a presumption of prejudice because a juror had looked up the dictionary definitions of “aggravate” and “mitigate” and shared them with other panelists.
While this was arguably misconduct, Werdegar said, it was unreasonable to believe that jurors might have misused the dictionary definitions, since they were properly instructed on how to weigh the aggravating and mitigating factors in reaching the penalty verdict.
The case is People v. Brasure, 08 S.O.S. 920.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company