Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Riverside Stabbings
No Abuse of Discretion in Replacing Counsel to Avoid Yearlong Trial Delay, Justices Rule
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Riverside Superior Court judge did not deprive a capital murder defendant of his right to counsel by removing a court-appointed lawyer who said he would not be ready to try the case for at least a year, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court, said Judge Vilia Sherman acted reasonably in rejecting further delay of a trial that was already set to take place eight years after the crimes were committed.
The justices also rejected other claims of error by Joseph Avila, convicted of the murders of Robert (Bobby) Navarro, 20, of Buena Park and Raul Humberto Moncada, 18, of Stanton on Jan. 13, 1991. Witnesses said Avila, then 22, attacked the two—along with David Montoya, a then-17-year-old Stanton resident who survived—with a knife in front of about 100 people.
The attacks occurred in a Riverside parking lot where a number of people were socializing after a night of cruising along a strip of Magnolia Street. Police said there were a number of territorial rivalries between young people from Riverside and Orange counties along the strip at the time.
Avila went to Mexico after the incident. He was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport more than four years later as he was arriving from Guadalajara, a result of what police said was an anonymous tip regarding his flight plans.
He was originally represented by the public defender, but the case was assigned to John Aquilina, a member of the court’s conflicts panel, after the public defender asked to be removed prior to the preliminary hearing. Following an October 1996 preliminary hearing and an arraignment two months later, trial was set for April 1998.
About a month before the scheduled date, however, Aquilina asked that the case be continued because the burden of handling two other capital cases, both of which were assigned to him before Avila’s, left him unprepared. The prosecution objected, citing concerns about witness availability.
The judge indicated that she was willing to delay the trial briefly, but Aquilina said he could not be ready before May 1999. He said he had attempted to expedite the matter by finding co-counsel, or another panel member who could try the case sooner, but had been unsuccessful.
Sherman, while expressing sympathy for counsel’s position, agreed with the prosecutor that a delay of that length would cause “a great injustice” to the victims’ families, and that competent counsel from outside the conflicts panel could be chosen.
After the defense said he did not want Aquilina replaced, the judge took the matter under submission. She subsequently relieved Aquilina and appointed Bruce Cormicle.
Jurors found Avila guilty of two counts of first degree murder, with a multiple murder special circumstance, and one count of attempted murder. Jurors returned a death penalty verdict and the judge denied the defendant’s motion to modify the verdict and imposed the death sentence.
In concluding that the defendant had a fair trial and that his right to counsel was not violated, Chin noted that neither Aquilina nor the defendant had objected at the time that Aquilina was actually replaced by Cormicle.
Nor, the justice said, was there any abuse of discretion. The trial judge, he said, “properly removed counsel to prevent substantial impairment of the court proceedings.”
Chin emphasized that there had already been considerable delay, in part because of the defendant’s flight from the jurisdiction, that Aquilina admitted doing little work on case, and that there was no guarantee that Aquilina would be ready for trial even after another year of delay. The defendant’s preference was entitled to consideration, the justice said, but was “not dispositive” under the circumstances.
In another capital case decided yesterday, the justices unanimously upheld the death sentence for Ernest Dykes. Dykes, then 36, was convicted and sentenced to death in Alameda Superior Court in 1995 for the first-degree murder of 9-year-old Lance Clark on July 26, 1993.
Prosecutors said Dykes shot the boy and his 70-year-old grandmother, Bernice Clark, in a botched robbery attempt, and that he may have wanted Bernice Clark dead because she could identify him. Bernice Clark owned the Oakland apartment building where Dykes lived.
The justices, in an opinion by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, rejected the contention that Dykes’ confession was involuntary. The defense contended that Dykes was manipulated by police because of his confused mental state, after he telephoned police to say he had read about the case and was afraid he might be considered a suspect.
George said “there is no indication of police coercion” in connection with the confession. A two-hour delay before the interrogation actually began was not an effort to manipulate the defendant, the chief justice said, but rather occurred because police had no way of knowing Dykes wanted to talk to them about the killings, which he claimed were accidental, and the lead investigator had to return to Oakland from Sacramento to speak to him.
The cases are People v. Avila, 09 S.O.S. 3641, and People v. Dykes, 09 S.O.S. 3615.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company