Tuesday, April 29, 2008
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in 1991 Murder Spree
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for the leader of a group responsible for several killings, kidnappings, and robberies in the San Gabriel Valley in 1991.
The justices unanimously agreed that while some of the special-circumstance findings against John I. Lewis were unsupported by substantial evidence, the remaining findings and the evidence of aggravating circumstances as a whole supported the sentence imposed by since-retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Clarence Stromwall.
Jurors in Lewis’ 1993 trial decided that he was the only one of four defendants in the case who deserved to die for the murders of Jose Avina, Agustine Ramirez, Willie Sams, Elizabeth Nisbet, and Shirley Denogean.
The killings all occurred in July and August 1991, right after Lewis was released from the Youth Authority. Avina was shot and killed in Monrovia; Ramirez was shot behind the Magic Mushroom, a West Covina restaurant he owned; Sams, a West Covina resident, was killed after being abducted from a bank parking lot; and Nisbet and Denogean were killed three days apart after being abducted from the Puente Hills Mall.
Reporters dubbed the killings “the mall murders.”
Jurors found Lewis and co-defendants Vincent Hubbard, Robbin Machuca—Lewis’ sister—and Eileen Huber guilty of first degree murder with special-circumstance findings of multiple murder and that all of the victims were killed by lying in wait and in the course of a robbery, a kidnapping, or a kidnapping for robbery.
Evidence showed that all of the victims had been observed and targeted. Ramirez—whom the defendant knew about because he had dated the daughter of a friend of Ramirez’s wife and because Machuca had visited the restaurant previously—was shot after leaving his restaurant with money.
The other victims were abducted after going to ATM machines or abducted and driven to various locations to get money out of ATM machines before being killed.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the Supreme Court, said the lying-in-wait special circumstance had been proven only as to Ramirez. As to each of the other victims, she wrote, “there was a period of watchful waiting culminating in surprise kidnapping, a series of nonlethal events, and then a cold, calculated, inevitable, and unsurprising dispatch of each victim.”
But the reversal of those findings did not require a new penalty trial, Kennard explained.
“Ten valid special circumstances remain rendering defendant eligible for the death penalty: five robbery-murder special circumstances, three kidnapping-murder special circumstances, one lying-in-wait special circumstance, and one multiple-murder special circumstance,” she wrote. “The jury’s consideration of the invalid lying-in-wait special circumstances as to murder victims Avina, Sams, Nisbet, and Denogean and the six reversed kidnapping convictions did not so skew the penalty determination process as to result in constitutional error,” since all of the evidence was admissible as proof of aggravating factors.
The case is People v. Lewis, 08 S.O.S. 2429.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company