Friday, July 11, 2008
Television Excerpt Properly Shown to Jury, S.C. Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Riverside Superior Court judge did not err in allowing the jury in a capital murder trial to view a brief excerpt of a television program that the defendant told police accurately depicted his crime, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justices unanimously affirmed the death sentence for Billy Ray Riggs, a former resident of Inglewood convicted of killing a Van Nuys woman who was abducted on Interstate 10 while on her way back to California from visiting friends in Arizona.
Jamie Bowie’s decomposed body was found in May 1990 in a desert irrigation ditch in Indio by a farm worker, according to evidence at the trial. More than a year later, police found her car in Fresno County, leading to the discovery that Riggs had sold the car two days after the victim was last seen alive.
A segment on the murder on “America’s Most Wanted” led to more than 100 tips, one of which took police to Riggs’ Inglewood residence. They found Riggs gone and an uneaten meal on the table, but another tip led to the arrests of Billy and Hilda Riggs a week later.
Hilda Riggs was described by the Supreme Court as Billy Riggs’ “common law wife.” Riggs had been married several times previously, including to a woman who testified at the trial that the couple separated but never divorced.
Hilda Riggs was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for her role in the murder and testified for the prosecution. She testified that she and Billy Riggs, an auto mechanic, encountered the victim when she had car trouble, offered to help, and then abducted and killed her for her car and her keys, which they used to steal various items from her apartment.
Riggs, after learning that “America’s Most Wanted” was going to show a segment on the murder, told Hilda Riggs to tape it. When he viewed it and saw the couple’s photographs, she testified, he said “we caught,” and they left.
After the arrests, the television program aired a segment about the couple’s capture, featuring Hilda Riggs’ account of the crime, which was consistent with her later testimony. Billy Riggs saw the program and contacted an investigator, saying he wanted to discuss it.
He told the investigator that the program was largely accurate, except that it was Hilda Riggs who shot the victim. He explained that he had received information that Bowie was delivering drugs, and that his plan was to steal them.
He gave Hilda Riggs his shotgun to guard the victim while he searched her car for the drugs, he explained, but Hilda Riggs shot her out of jealousy. Prosecution witnesses testified that Bowie had no involvement with drugs.
The prosecution offered the second “America’s Most Wanted” episode as evidence, saying it was an “adoptive admission” by Riggs that he planned to rob Bowie and was involved in her death. Judge Thomas N. Douglass Jr. allowed the showing of a brief portion of the broadcast, lasting less than two minutes, recounting what Hilda Riggs told the police could be shown to the jury
The defense offered an alibi defense, and also attempted to shift blame for the crime to Hilda Riggs and another man, whom prosecutors said had nothing to do with. Prosecutors also noted that the claim that Hilda Riggs committed the murder was at odds with the testimony of the alibi witnesses, family members who placed the defendant and Hilda Riggs in Stockton on the day of the murder.
Jurors convicted Riggs, who represented himself at the preliminary hearing and at trial, after less than a day of deliberation. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that the defendant repeatedly beat Hilda Riggs, as well as other women, and that he had shot and killed his brother after an argument, a charge that had been dismissed following a preliminary hearing.
He had also been convicted of two burglaries. Jurors called for the death penalty, again after less than a day of deliberation.
On appeal, the defense argued that the tape of the television episode was unduly prejudicial and included dramatic elements which were not part of what defendant could be held to have admitted to. But Justice Marvin Baxter said the trial judge was within his discretion in allowing the prosecution to show the tape “to give full context to defendant’s statement that he saw the episode and agreed, to some degree, with what was depicted in it.”
As for the claim of undue prejudice, Baxter noted that the most dramatic element, a reenactment of the shooting, lasted only a few seconds.
Baxter also rejected the defense argument that Douglass should not have allowed Riggs to represent himself without warning him about the specific differences between a capital and non-capital trial, and the particular difficulties of self-representation when the death penalty is involved.
“The lengthy advisements given twice in this case warned defendant that defending against capital charges is a complex process involving extremely high stakes and technical rules defendant would be expected to follow despite his likely unfamiliarity with them, and that defendant’s ability to defend himself might be hampered by his incarceration and lack of training. Moreover, the record shows defendant understood the possibility of a penalty phase of the trial that might result in a sentence of death.”
The record, the justice concluded, established that the judge’s warnings to the defendant were constitutionally adequate and that Riggs knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to counsel.
The court yesterday also ruled on one other capital case, unanimously upholding the death sentence for Richard Ray Parson. Prosecutors said Parson killed a Sacramento nurse, who he knew, in her apartment, where had gone to steal money to feed his drug habit. Parson had 10 prior felony convictions for crimes including conspiring to bring drugs into a prison, receiving stolen property; forgery, bank robbery, passing a forged check; and interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle.
The cases are People v. Riggs, 08 S.O.S. 4004, and People v. Parson, 08 S.O.S. 4038.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company