Friday, July 17, 2009
High Court Upholds Instruction on Governor’s Commutation Power
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Riverside Superior Court judge did not deprive a defendant charged with capital murder of his constitutional rights by telling the jury, in response to a question, that the governor would have the power to commute any sentence of life imprisonment without parole, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
While commutation instructions are generally inappropriate because they are irrelevant to the penalty determination, Justice Carol Corrigan wrote, Judge Robert McIntyre reasonably responded to the jury’s question by telling them that it was possible for the governor to commute a sentence, but that they should not consider that in determining whether to impose the death penalty on Michael L. Bramit.
The justices yesterday unanimously upheld Bramit’s death sentence for the 1994 robbery-murder of Jose Fierros. Five other justices joined Corrigan in concluding that the commutation instruction was proper given the circumstances, while Justice Carlos Moreno disagreed but said the instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Fierros was shot to death in front of several witnesses, as Bramit’s accomplice went through his pockets in the parking lot of a Banning mini-mart.
Apprehended months later, Bramit initially told police he was not at the scene, then sought to blame his accomplice for the shooting, then admitted he shot the victim but said he did not intend to kill him but that Fierros resisted with “superhuman strength.”
Jurors found Bramit guilty of first degree murder with a robbery special circumstance. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence of numerous bad acts by Bramit, beginning with bringing BB guns to school when he was 12, progressing to assault and strong-arm robbery of a pizza delivery man, to assaulting his mother, to a spree of eight bank robberies and one attempted robbery during a 10-month period following the Fierros shooting.
His girlfriend, Latrina Howard, was his accomplice during two of the robberies but testified against him at the murder trial pursuant to a plea bargain. She testified that he was frequently violent or threatening towards her and others, and had threatened to harm prosecution witnesses.
During penalty phase deliberations, jurors asked the judge:
“Does a conviction and sentence of Life without possibility of parole mean there is no future possibility of parole regardless of future changes of Law or Legal [precedent] ?”
After consulting with counsel, McIntyre responded:
“The governor of the State of California has the power to commute or modify a sentence. This power applies to both life without possibility of parole and the death sentence. It would be a violation of your duty as a juror to consider the possibilities of such commutation of an appropriate sentence.”
On appeal from the ensuing death sentence, the defense argued that the instruction was erroneous and prejudicial. Corrigan disagreed, writing:
“A trial court in a capital case does not err when it answers a jury question generally related to the commutation power by instructing that the Governor may commute either a death sentence or a life without possibility of parole sentence, but that the jury must not consider the possibility of commutation in determining the appropriate sentence.”
Moreno, however, argued in his separate concurrence that the circumstances did not make the instruction necessary because the jury had asked about changes in the law, not about the governor’s clemency powers. The concurring justice added that if the judge felt he had to give the instruction, he should have also noted that because of his prior felony convictions, Bramit’s sentence—according to the state Constitution—could not be commuted without the concurrence of the state Supreme Court.
Moreno went on to say that while it would be a close question “if I were writing on a clean slate,” the high court’s precedent holds that by telling jurors to disregard the commutation power, the judge rendered the entire instruction harmless.
In another capital case yesterday, also from Riverside County, justices unanimously upheld the conviction and death sentence of Michael Bernard Lewis for the 1991 murder of Patricia Miller, who was raped, strangled, and had her throat cut. The defense had argued that the trial judge erred in admitting evidence of a rape committed by Lewis four years earlier, but the chief justice said the crimes were so similar, and sufficiently close in time—especially since Lewis was in prison for most of the intervening period—that the probative value outweighed any prejudice.
The cases are People v. Bramit, 09 S.O.S. 4324, and People v. Lewis, 09 S.O.S. 4298.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company