Friday, June 20, 2008
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Van Nuys Shooting
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a onetime San Fernando High School football standout convicted of robbing and killing a man who was playing cards in a Van Nuys park.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bert Glennon Jr., in sentencing Lanell Craig Harris in 1993, called the murder of Julian Ramirez Contreras “a coldblooded, senseless killing of a man who left a wife and six children and who the defendant later referred to as a sewer rat when bragging about the killing.”
Yesterday, Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for a unanimous court, said the conviction and sentence were untainted by any error.
Los Angeles Superior Court jurors in Van Nuys found Harris guilty of first degree murder, attempted murder, and three counts of attempted armed robbery, with a robbery-murder special circumstance.
A second murder charge, that Harris had stabbed an employee to death at a donut shop about seven months before the August 1991 Contreras murder, was dismissed after jurors deadlocked 10-2 for conviction. The prosecutor said there was no point to a retrial in light of the death sentence.
Harris could still be retried for that crime, since the judge deniend the defense motion for an acquittal based on insufficiency of the evidence and there is no statute of limitations as to murder.
The same jury returned a death penalty verdict after a sentencing phase in which jurors heard evidence that Harris had been previous convicted of robbery, burglary, and felonious assault, and that while in high school, he participated in the strong-arm robbery of another boy’s bicycle and threatened to kill a school police officer.
The defense claimed that Harris was with his wife at the time of the park murders, and portrayed him during the penalty phase as someone who had a difficult relationship with his father and suffered from chronic depression, but did well in structured environments such as school sports and prison.
Harris was arrested after an anonymous tipster responded to a $15,000 reward offer, two months after the shooting and just hours after a press conference at which the offer was announced. He was subsequently identified by witnesses, who said he robbed Contreras before shooting him, and that he shot at another one of the players.
Among those questioned by police was Robert James, the grandson of Harris’ stepmother. In a taped statement, James told them that less than a month before the arrest, he and Harris walked by the park and he told Harris he wanted to play basketball, but Harris said he could not play because “I blasted this fool in the park, and there go some of his homeboys.”
James said Harris later explained that he had seen some Mexicans gambling, went home to get his gun, and returned to the park with another person. They confronted the Mexicans and asked for money, Harris recounted, “then the sewer rat”—a term Harris often used to describe persons of Mexican ancestry—“jumped up and I shot him.”
At trial, James said he could not recall much of what he told the detectives. Later in the trial, however, a detective who drove James home from court testified—over defense objection—that James claimed to have been threatened by a relative of the defendant.
Corrigan, writing yesterday for the high court, said the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in admitting the testimony, subject to an instruction that it was to be considered only as an explanation of the witness’ state of mind when he testified.
“The court was aware of the discrepancy between the statements on the tape and James’s testimony, and the relevance of the threat he received immediately before he took the stand was obvious,” the justice wrote, and Glennon reasonably concluded that the probative value of the testimony outweighed any prejudice that might have survived the limiting instruction.
The case is People v. Harris, 08 S.O.S. 3593.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company