Tuesday, July 29, 2008
S.C. Tosses Death Sentence Over Removal of Holdout Juror
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court reversed a Riverside man’s sentence of death yesterday based on the erroneous excusal of the sole juror holding out for a life sentence during the penalty phase deliberations.
The state high court affirmed Lester Wilson’s convictions for murder and rape, with special circumstances, but reversed the penalty judgment, holding that the trial court had erred, as a matter of state law, in excusing the holdout juror based on the juror’s stated position that he had decided not to vote for death penalty because his understanding of African American family dynamics led him to believe Wilson grew up in a dysfunctional family and this mitigating factor sufficiently outweighed the aggravating evidence.
Wilson is African-American, and only one African American served on his jury. That juror joined the other 11 jurors to convict Wilson of all counts during the guilt phase of trial, and initially joined a majority of the jurors in voting in favor of capital punishment.
After the two initial holdouts announced that they had changed their minds, Juror No. 5—as he was identified in the opinion—announced that he no longer voted in favor of imposing the death sentence. One of the other jurors complained to the court that Juror No. 5 had “suddenly changed his mind an[d] only offers the fact that we are not ‘Black’ and would not understand” as the reason for his decision.
Juror Asserted Insight
In response to Riverside Superior Court Judge Vilia G. Sherman’s questioning, Juror No. 5 asserted that he had some insight into the negative family dynamics and harsh circumstances in which Wilson was raised because he was African-American himself and had raised a son. He suggested that had defendant enjoyed the benefits his own son had growing up, he would consider death as a possible penalty for defendant’s crimes.
Sherman determined that Juror No. 5’s statement exhibited fundamental racial basis and his improper consideration of race in the deliberations. Accordingly, Sherman dismissed Juror No. 5 pursuant to Penal Code Sec. 1089 for failing to perform his duties as a juror.
Writing for the unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar explained that a juror’s inability to perform as a juror must be shown as a “demonstrable reality” which requires a “stronger evidentiary showing than mere substantial evidence.”
Juror No. 5’s failure to express his views about African-American family dynamics is not the kind of concealment that would justify Juror No. 5’s removal from the jury under Sec. 1089, Werdegar reasoned.
“To conclude otherwise would require accepting the notion that the other jurors were unable to perform their duty because they concealed their unstated assumption that the family dynamics in African-American families were no different from those occurring in non-African-American families,” Werdegar wrote.
Regardless, Werdegar continued, because Juror No. 5 was never asked about his views on the subject, he could not have concealed them from the court.
Juror No. 5 had affirmed that he would not consider a defendant’s race to benefit or disadvantage him and that he would treat a defendant of any ethnicity like he would anyone else, Werdegar noted, and he viewed the evidence “refracted through the prism of his own experience,” which led him to view the evidence differently from the rest of the jury.
Because the penalty phase sentencing function is “‘inherently moral and normative,’” Werdegar reasoned, a juror does not commit misconduct by interpreting evidence based on his own life experience. “[I]ndeed, we expect jurors to use their own life experiences when evaluating the evidence,” she noted.
Thus, she concluded, “relying on an understanding, based on personal experience, of the effects of certain social environments and family dynamics on a young person growing up, when this understanding illuminates the significance or weight an individual juror would accord to related evidence in a particular case, is not misconduct.”
However, evidence of a defendant’s dysfunctional family was insufficient to spare Keith Loker from his death sentence, the California Supreme Court ruled in a separate case.
Loker was convicted of two murders, committed during the course of the robbery of adult bookstore in Fontana.
The undisputed evidence was that Loker entered the store and began firing a handgun, striking four people. He stole two of the victims’ wallets, and forced an employee, who to give him money from a cash register. Two of the victims later died from their wounds.
Loker fled to Arizona, driving a car he had stolen from an Arcadia store owner at gunpoint the day before. The day after the Fontana robbery-murders, Loker robbed a convenience store in Flagstaff, Arizona, shot one man and raped his wife. He was arrested three days later.
At trial, he conceded responsibility and San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Clay M. Smith permitted the prosecutor to repeatedly refer to a psychological report concerning Loker, purporting to identify the document and characterizing its contents even though the report was not in evidence and no witness ever identified the report or laid a foundation for its admission.
Writing for the unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Carol Corrigan concluded the admission of the report was error, but that the error was harmless. She noted that the court sustained a number of objections by defense counsel, and admonished the jury repeatedly and at length about the limited role the report could play in its deliberations. Thus, Corrigan reasoned, the improperly admitted evidence was not so egregious as to prejudice the outcome of the penalty phase.
Corrigan also concluded that based on Loker’s “brutal and terrifying crime spree,” Loker’s sentence was not disproportionate to his crimes, despite Loker’s mitigating evidence focused on his upbringing in a religious cult, immaturity, emotional problems, lack of prior criminal behavior, dysfunctional family background, and remorse for his crimes.
The cases are People v. Wilson, 08 S.O.S. 4471 and People v. Loker, 08 S.O.S. 4497.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company