Friday, January 30, 2009
Juror Misconduct Did Not Taint Death Sentence, S.C. Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence for a flooring installer convicted of the 1994 killing of a Laguna Hills woman whose home he had worked at two weeks earlier.
The maximum penalty was not disproportionate to Eric Wayne Bennett’s culpability in the murder of Marie Evans Powell, Justice Carlos Moreno wrote for the court. Moreno also concluded that false statements by a juror during penalty deliberations, while constituting misconduct, did not affect the verdict and sentence.
Bennett was sentenced to death by Orange Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Leary—now a Fourth District Court of Appeal justice—after a jury found him guilty of the murder, with special circumstances of rape and burglary, and of forcible oral copulation, rape, first degree robbery within an inhabited dwelling, and first degree burglary of an inhabited dwelling in connection with an attack on another victim.
That woman, identified by the court as Pamela B., was an attorney and was Bennett’s Costa Mesa neighbor. She said at the time of sentencing that the crime was emotionally shattering and helped end her career.
Police learned that Bennett had installed Powell’s flooring and eventually linked him to the crimes through DNA testing. In the penalty phase of the trial, defense counsel conceded that Bennett had committed both crimes and said he was remorseful.
Friends and Bennett’s wife testified that Bennett was so sorry about the crimes he wanted to plead guilty, but that they convinced him to place his faith in his lawyers. The attorneys urged the judge and jury to spare Bennett’s life based on his remorse, his lack of a previous criminal record, and the drug and alcohol addictions they said contributed to his actions.
The sentencing was delayed several times as O’Leary held hearings to clear up allegations of juror misconduct. She ultimately concluded that the panelist, identified only as Juror No. 20, had lied when he told his fellow jurors that he had spent time in jail.
The judge declined to order a new trial, however, holding that the verdict would have been the same regardless.
Moreno agreed, rejecting the defense argument that the juror may have improperly led jurors to believe that a death sentence was not much harsher than one of life imprisonment. He agreed with O’Leary that the brief reference to the juror’s alleged personal experience would not have altered fellow jurors’ own perceptions, since it is commonly understood that jail is a bad place and the defense offered evidence to that effect during the penalty phase, including from a fellow inmate who testified that the defendant had been attacked in jail.
Nor, the justice said, did the juror’s unusual behavior, which the defense described as “bizarre” and “pathological,” establish that he was unfit to serve.
“Nothing supports this interpretation,” Moreno wrote. “To the contrary, the record suggests the juror first lied to his fellow jurors about having been in jail in order to garner attention and then, once the defense investigator approached him about his comments, the juror understood he had committed misconduct and engaged in a series of contradictory explanations in an effort to get out of trouble. Nothing other than mere speculation supports defendant’s contention that Juror No. 20 was ‘pathological’ or otherwise incapable of performing his duty as a juror.”
The case is People v. Bennett, 09 S.O.S. 578
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company