Friday, August 15, 2008
Court Upholds Death Sentence in Killing of Riverside Woman
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a Riverside man convicted of robbing and murdering his neighbor, rejecting the claim that his rights were violated when the trial court replaced his court-appointed lawyer over his objection.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for a unanimous court, said Riverside Superior Court Judge J. Thompson Hanks acted reasonably in appointing private counsel to represent John Mungia after the deputy public defender handling the case suffered a heart attack and the Public Defender’s Office indicated it might be a year before another lawyer could try the case.
Mungia was sentenced to death in 1997 for the killing of 73-year-old Alma Franklin three years earlier. Franklin died from 23 blows to the head after her home was ransacked. Mungia, who moved in with his sister across the street from the victim after being released from prison—he had previously been convicted of three robberies and a burglary—was seen driving Franklin’s car, which was later recovered in Santa Ana, not far from the home of Mungia’s aunt.
Mungia’s fingerprints were found on the car’s bumper, and Franklin’s phone records revealed that somebody called Mungia’s aunt about the time she was last seen alive. Police who questioned Mungia said they observed scratches on the defendant’s body, and that he falsely told them he was in his trailer the night of the murder, that he had never been in Franklin’s house and never touched her car, and that he did not know anyone in Santa Ana.
Prosecutors also presented evidence that genetic tissue found under the victim’s fingernails was consistent with the defendant’s DNA.
Mungia was represented, beginning in 1995, by Deputy Public Defender John Isaacs. After several continuances based on discovery issues, the case was set for trial in April 1996, but Isaacs suffered a heart attack the month before.
The deputy public defender assisting Isaacs said she could not take over as lead counsel without a delay of “many months” because she had been working exclusively on penalty phase issues. After another delay, the Public Defender’s Office reassigned the case to another veteran deputy, Stuart Sachs, but he said he would need at least nine months, and possibly a year, to get ready.
Hanks concluded that the Public Defender’s Office was “unavailable” for trial and removed it from the case, appointing Randolph Driggs as counsel. Mungia challenged the removal of his counsel in a writ petition that was summarily denied by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Hanks, however, scheduled a trial readiness conference for June in order to give the Public Defender’s Office another opportunity to explain when it could be ready for trial. The judge was informed that Sachs, who had inherited a significant workload after it was determined that Isaacs would not return to trial work, could try the case in July 1997.
The judge said that was not soon enough and kept Driggs as counsel.
After a series of status conferences, the trial began in January 1997. Jurors found Mungia guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances of robbery, burglary, and torture, and returned a death penalty verdict after brief deliberations in the penalty phase.
Kennard, writing for the high court, said the trial judge properly balanced the defendant’s desire for continued representation by the Public Defender’s Office against the public interest in speedy justice. She distinguished several cases in which the court held that judges had erred in removing defense counsel.
Most of those cases involved retained, not appointed, counsel, Kennard noted. The one cited case involving appointed counsel, she said, was distinguishable given the long delays in Mungia’s case and the fact that the cited case involved a situation where an attorney was removed because the trial judge thought the lawyer incompetent, not because of physical incapacity.
The justice did, however, agree with the defense on one issue—that the torture special circumstance was inapplicable because there was no evidence that Mungia killed Franklin “for the purpose of revenge, extortion, persuasion, or for any other sadistic purpose.” What the evidence showed, Kennard said, was that the defendant entered the residence in order to rob the victim and killed her because, after his prison experience, he had vowed never again to leave a victim alive to testify against him.
The error was harmless, however, Kennard said, because the robbery and burglary special circumstances still applied and the “overwhelming” evidence of guilt, the “brutal and savage” nature of the crime, and the defendant’s prior record made it unlikely that the jury would have reached a different verdict absent the torture finding.
The high court yesterday also affirmed the death sentence for Keone Wallace, convicted of killing 83-year-old Hazel Hamilton in her Fresno home. Wallace, who was spotted by police after jumping out the window of the house, claimed that someone else must have been in the house and committed the murder, because he was drunk and was only there to steal.
The high court unanimously rejected Wallace’s contention that because of his age—he was 21 at the time of the murder—as well as his intoxication, limited mental ability, dysfunctional family background, and what he characterized as a minimal prior criminal record, the penalty was disproportionate to the crime.
“In the course of a residential burglary, defendant beat to death a frail, elderly woman who was particularly vulnerable because of her age and her poor physical condition,” Kennard wrote for the court. “He also attempted to rob and sexually assault her. On these facts, the death sentence is not grossly disproportionate to defendant’s culpability.”
The cases are People v. Mungia, 08 S.O.S. 4944, and People v. Wallace, 08 S.O.S. 4923.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company