Friday, May 9, 2008
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Compton Drive-By Shootings
Unanimous Court Rejects Claim of Prosecution Bias in Jury Selection
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed a Compton gang member’s conviction of murdering two people in a drive-by shooting.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the court, rejected claims that prosecutors denied Paul Gregory Watson a fair trial by using peremptory challenges against a number of African Americans, and that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Donald F. Pitts deprived Watson of a jury trial by replacing a juror who said during deliberations that he would never vote for the death penalty.
Pitts, who subsequently retired, sentenced Watson to death for the 1989 murders of Ava Williams, who was shot while holding her 1-year-old, and Earl Solomon. Prosecutors said the murders were part of a gang war between the Atlantic Drive Crips and the Santana Block Crips.
Witnesses identified Watson, whose gang moniker was “Potato Head,’ as a member of the Santana gang and Solomon as a member of the Atlantic Drive gang. A police gang expert testified that the two gangs were once close, but became enemies over a drug deal.
Watson was identified as the shooter, using an AK-47 fired from a white Cadillac. Evidence showed that Watson had sold the car, and that it had been painted black, after the shooting. Bakersfield police found Watson at a residence in that city and arrested him; they also found the car.
Miranda Rights Invoked
The arresting officer testified that Watson invoked Miranda rights, and that while being transported back to Los Angeles, he spontaneously said he was not in Compton on the day of the shooting, even though he had not been told what he was under arrest for.
The defense contended that Watson was not the shooter, and that the alleged gang war was a police fabrication. But prosecutors were able to impeach the defense witnesses by showing they were convicted felons, one of whom admitted—over defense objection—that he had recently begun a 10-year federal prison term for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Jurors found Watson guilty of first degree murder with a multiple-murder special circumstance. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that he had been involved in three assaults on other inmates while in jail awaiting trial, and had previously been convicted of three drug-related felonies.
Defense witnesses testified that Watson was not violent or gang-involved before he went to prison on his first drug conviction, and that he had turned to selling drugs as a teenager after the death of his stepfather—who had allegedly sent Watson to get him drugs on occasion—left his epileptic mother destitute.
On the second day of penalty deliberations, the foreperson sent the judge a note asking: “What do we do if we have a juror that has admitted he does not believe in the death penalty, under any circumstances?”
After discussion with counsel, Pitts questioned the foreperson, who identified the recalcitrant juror and explained that the juror said he had spoken to his minister the previous evening and decided he could not “bring himself to take another human life.”
The judge then brought in the juror and asked him a series of questions, including “Is it your position that you could not vote for the death penalty under any circumstances no matter what the evidence in the case is?”; “It’s without regard to what evidence is presented in the case?”; “That means that you would not consider the circumstances of the crime?”; “You would not consider circumstances in aggravation?”; “[W]ould you not consider circumstances in mitigation?”; and “You would under no circumstances without regard to what the evidence is vote for the death penalty?”
After the juror answered “right” to each question, Pitts excused the juror and replaced him with an alternate.
Jurors returned a death penalty verdict. At a later hearing, after Pitts denied the defense motion to modify the verdict and was about to impose the death sentence, a screaming Watson tried, despite being handcuffed and shackled, to assault prosecutor Mark Ashen in the courtroom.
On appeal, the defense argued that Pitts should have declared a mistrial after the prosecution struck nine prospective jurors who were African American based on what the defense claimed were not rational, race-neutral explanations.
Moreno, however, said that each of the stricken venire members had given voir dire answers that could have reasonably caused the prosecution concern, including opposition to the death penalty, friends or family members with criminal records, unfavorable views of the police, and close contact with gang members.
He also said the panel was “a diverse group,” explaining:
“Among the seated jurors, four were White, six were Black, one was Hispanic, and one described himself as ‘Filipino Afro’; among the alternates, three were White and one was Black. These circumstances further support the inference that the prosecutor acted in good faith and without discriminatory purpose in exercising peremptory challenges.”
The justice acknowledged that some non-black venire members were accepted, despite possessing some of the same characteristics as blacks who were excused. One juror, said he had some exposure to gangs as an employee of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But that particular juror could not be reasonably compared to the stricken venire member who had an “upbringing in a gang-infested community” and who also possessed an “apparent bias against imposing the death penalty on facts similar to those in this case,” the justice said. Nor did any of the accepted white jurors possess the same combination of characteristics that caused some of their black counterparts to be stricken, Moreno concluded.
With respect to the juror who was disqualified during deliberations, Moreno said the trial judge handled the matter appropriately, rejecting the defense contention that the juror had, in good faith, reached a conclusion on the death penalty during deliberations. There was no requirement that the judge admonish the entire jury, and allow it to continue deliberations, before inquiring with respect to the individual juror, the justice explained.
Moreno also rejected the defense contention that Pitts should not have allowed the prosecution to impeach a defense witness by forcing him to reveal the length of his prison term and the fact that he was currently in custody.
While impeachment based on a prior conviction is generally limited to the fact that the offense was a felony, Moreno explained, in this case the prosecution was entitled to show that the defendant had little reason to fear the consequences of perjury. And if there was error, he said, it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the evidence of Watson’s guilt was overwhelming.
The appeal was argued by Deputy State Public Defender Peter R. Silten of San Francisco and Deputy Attorney General Nancy G. James.
The case is People v. Watson, 08 S.O.S. 2707.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company