Friday, July 31, 2009
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Orange County Carjack Killing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of murder and other crimes in connection with one of Orange County’s first carjacking cases.
A unanimous court rejected Shaun Burney’s claims that he should not have been tried with two codefendants, and that his sentence was disproportionate to their life-without-parole sentences for a crime he largely blamed on them.
Burney was 20 years old when Orange Superior Court Judge Robert Fitzgerald sentenced him to death in 1994 for the June 1992 murder of Joseph Kondrath, 23. The victim was, according to testimony, abducted while seated behind the wheel of his car in front of his Anaheim residence, forced at gunpoint to give up his wallet, stuffed into the trunk, and later shot to death as he pled for his life.
Burney—who, according to news accounts, swore at Fitzgerald as he was led from the courtroom following sentencing—was arrested after telling someone he was the shooter.
After waiving his rights, he initially denied involvement, saying he falsely implicated himself to appear tough. But he later admitted shooting Kondrath, maintaining that he did so only at the instigation of one of his companions, whom he said was drunk.
Burney said he did not hand the firearm back to his companion because he feared being accidentally hit by gunfire if the man were to attempt to shoot the victim.
Prosecutors charged Burney, Allen Dean Burnett II and Scott Rembert with first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery, and kidnapping for purposes of robbery, but sought the death penalty only against Burney in light of the evidence that he was the actual shooter.
At a joint trial, the jury found Burney and Burnett guilty of all charges, with special circumstances of robbery and kidnapping. It found Rembert guilty of kidnapping and kidnapping for robbery, but deadlocked on the murder and robbery charges.
Rembert, who claimed that he was across the street when the victim was shot, was tried twice more on the remaining charges before a jury found him guilty on the other two counts, with special circumstances.
Burney argued on appeal that he could not effectively defend himself at a joint trial because of the antagonism between him and his codefendants, who sought to deflect blame for the crime on to him, and that his codefendants’ statements deprived him of his right of confrontation, although they were redacted to eliminate references to him by name.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George agreed that the redactions were inadequate to avoid conveying the impression that Rembert and Burnett were implicating Burney. But there was no prejudice, the chief justice concluded.
There was, he said, overwhelming independent evidence that Burney was guilty of first degree murder, whether on a theory of premeditation, felony-murder based on kidnapping, or felony-murder based on robbery, so the erroneous admission of the redacted statements was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
George also concluded that the imposition of the death sentence on Burney and not the others did not single Burney out for disproportionate punishment.
The trial judge, George said, reasonably rejected Burney’s claim that he acted under duress, since that claim was inconsistent with the other evidence, including his statements to police. It was also logical, the chief justice explained, to punish the shooter more harshly than the other defendants.
“[I]t was defendant, not either of his codefendants, who shot and killed the victim even though the victim was pleading for his life,” George reasoned. “Although defendant asserts throughout his briefing that his codefendants were ‘more culpable’ than he because he shot the victim at their urging, this assertion does not supersede the evidence in the record establishing defendant’s primary role in the victim’s murder.”
The case is People v. Burney, 09 S.O.S. 4542.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company