Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Killing of Elderly South Gate Couple
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a man convicted of killing his South Gate neighbors.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury found Samuel Zamudio guilty, following a 1997 trial, of the February 1996 slayings of 79-year-old Elmer Benson and 74-year-old Gladys Benson, whose bodies were found in their home. Jurors also found that the murder was committed in the course of a robbery.
Prosecutors said the defendant, who lived next door to, was friends with, occasionally did household chores for, and owed money to, the Bensons, stabbed them to death and stole their property. They claimed Zamudio needed money to keep up an extramarital affair.
Police interviewed Zamudio, who acknowledged that he had owed the Bensons money, and examined his shoes. After a criminalist concluded that the shoes had blood on them, Zamudio was arrested, and the expert later testified that there was no doubt that bloody shoe prints found on the Bensons’ floor were made by Zamudio’s shoes.
Jewelry and coins found on Zamudio’s person at the time of his arrest were traced to the Bensons, and blood testing established with near certainty that blood found inside one of the shoes was Gladys Benson’s.
Defense counsel suggested that Zamudio did not intend to rob or kill the Bensons when he went over to their house, but killed them out of rage when they refused to lend him more money, and that he then took their property after the fact.
Judge Dewey Falcone, however, declined to charge the jurors on “after-acquired intent” to rob, and the jury found the defendant guilty of robbery and felony-murder with special circumstances robbery-murder and multiple murder. Following a penalty phase in which the victims’ daughter narrated a video montage of more than 100 scenes from their lives, jurors returned a death penalty verdict.
Justice Ming Chin, writing yesterday for the high court, said the trial judge was not required to give the after-acquired intent instruction. There was, the justice said, “ample” proof of the defendant’s intent to rob the victims.
He cited evidence that he had borrowed money from them and did not pay it back when he was supposed to, that he spent all of his money at a bar the night before the murders, and that he did not want his wife to know about the loan and did not want to ask her for money. The defense presented no evidence to support its contrary theory, the justice said.
Besides, Chin wrote, the proposed instruction was unnecessary because the issue was adequately covered by the standard instructions on robbery, felony-murder, the concurrence of act and specific intent, and the robbery-murder special circumstance.
Chin also rejected the argument that the trial court should have excluded the video montage from the penalty phase. The Office of the State Public Defender argued that the montage was mostly “irrelevant,” exceeded permissible limits on victim impact testimony, and “was clearly prejudicial.”
Chin, however, said Falcone properly exercised his discretion, barring prosecutors from playing accompanying audio and requiring the witness who narrated the montage to refrain from making inflammatory comments, an instruction that the witness complied with.
Nor did the fact that the montage included a photo of the victims’ tombstones render the evidence unduly prejudicial.
The justice also rejected the argument that jurors should have been given a special instruction on victim-impact evidence, including the statement that “you may not impose the ultimate sanction as a result of an irrational, purely subjective response to emotional evidence and argument.”
The proposed instruction, Chin said, was “misleading to the extent it indicates that emotions may play no part in a juror’s decision to opt for the death penalty.” And to the extent the instruction sought to impress upon jurors their obligation to consider victim-impact testimony in the context of the evidence as a whole, that function was served by the standard instructions given by the trial judge, Chin said.
The case is People v. Zamudio, 08 S.O.S. 2231.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company