Friday, June 19, 2009
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Murders of Japanese Students
Judge Pierce Did Not Coerce Jury Into Capital Punishment Verdict, Justices Rule
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a gang member who killed two college students from Japan during a 1994 carjacking in the parking lot of a San Pedro supermarket.
In doing so, the justices rejected the contention that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge coerced the jury into reaching a death penalty verdict for Raymond Oscar Butler.
Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for a unanimous court, said Judge James Pierce gave an appropriate charge, urging jurors to continue working toward a verdict, after they reported that they were deadlocked 11-1—the judge asked the foreperson not to say which way—on the eighth day of penalty phase deliberations.
Pierce sentenced Butler, then 20, following a 1996 trial in which he was convicted of two counts each of first degree murder, robbery, and carjacking in connection with the deaths of Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura.
Marymount College Students
The 19-year-olds, both Marymount College film students, went to the supermarket in Ito’s car, and witnesses said that Butler shot Ito after taking his wallet while he stood outside the car, then shot Matsuura as he sat inside, before leaving the victims on the parking lot and stealing the car.
The victims were left in the parking lot; they were later kept on life support until their families arrived from Japan, where their murders were highly publicized. The U.S. ambassador to that country formally expressed his regrets to the Japanese nation for the crimes.
Butler was identified by an eyewitness from a photo lineup, and eventually implicated by three people, including his sister-in-law, who drove with him to the parking lot. At trial, he claimed that although he carried a gun—out of fear of being attacked by rival gangs—he did not intend to rob or shoot the victims; all he wanted from Ito was a ride, he said, but the gun went off accidentally and he panicked and began shooting until he ran out of ammunition.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors focused largely on Butler’s role in a jailhouse killing a year after the shootings.
Tyrone Flemming was beaten and stabbed multiple times as he and other inmates were being moved to showers the morning of March 26. Witnesses said that Butler started the fight, then Paul Gornick began stabbing Flemming, and that Butler then took the same knife and stabbed Flemming several more times.
Butler admitted being involved in the fight, which stemmed from an ongoing feud between Gornick and Flemming over an allegedly stolen address book and supposed threats by Flemming against Gornick’s family. Butler said Gornick was planning to attack Flemming and had used a fabricated handcuff key to keep his stabbing hand free, and that he only participated in the fight because he would have been seen as a coward otherwise.
Butler denied stabbing the victims.
The defense case in the penalty phase was largely based on the defendants’ childhood, including emotional problems that were caused or exacerbated by asthma and use of drugs and alcohol. Butler and family members said he attempted suicide at age 17 after he had been drinking.
Jurors reported on the third day of penalty phase deliberations, and again on the eighth day, that they were deadlocked.
The first time, Pierce gave what he called “a watered-down version of an old Allen instruction.” The second time, after determining that the jury was within one vote of a unanimous verdict, he asked the foreperson whether a unanimous verdict was possible; when the foreperson answered in the negative, he asked a second juror.
When the second juror said a verdict was possible, the judge told jurors to try again. A day later, they delivered a death penalty verdict.
Corrigan said the Allen-type charge was proper, citing People v. Gainer (1977) 19 Cal.3d 835.
The Gainer court, the justice noted, discussed the instructions often given to deadlocked juries on the basis of Allen v. United States (1896) 164 U.S. 675, and identified two improprieties—telling jurors to consider the numerical division or preponderance of opinion among their fellow panelists, and causing jurors to be concerned about the fact that a case will be retried if no verdict is reached.
Pierce’s instruction contained no such infirmities, Corrigan noted.
As for the second deadlock, the justice wrote:
“It is settled that a court may inquire into the numerical division of the jury in a deadlock during the penalty phase, and that whether there is a ‘reasonable probability’ of agreement is a matter committed to the trial court’s discretion....
“Here, the court’s decision to inquire whether there was a ‘possibility’ of reaching a verdict, rather than a ‘reasonable probability’ in the terms of [Penal Code] section 1140, was within its discretion. The court steered well clear of pressuring the jurors into reaching a verdict, telling them, ‘There is obviously an easy answer for you to give me, and you will all go home.’ The jurors could not have construed this comment as a request for a verdict, because the court was simply asking each of them in open court for his or her view of the mere possibility of a verdict if deliberations were to resume. There was no pressure on the holdout juror, when the court told the entire panel that no extra time could be demanded of the jury at that point, and that everyone would be sent home if they agreed a verdict could not be reached. Nothing in the court’s comments tended to dissuade any juror from maintaining his or her position. The court did not abuse its discretion when it directed the jury to resume deliberations.”
The justices also rejected the defense contention that Pierce erred in excluding evidence of a statement made by Gornick to defense investigators, in which he claimed that he stabbed Flemming to protect himself and Butler and that Butler only came to his aid and did not intend to harm Flemming.
Corrigan said the trial judge reasonably determined that the statement was not a declaration against penal interest, since Gornick was claiming self-defense rather than incriminating himself. The justice also noted that Gornick had invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than testify at Butler’s trial, thus preventing prosecutors from cross-examining him on the specifics of Butler’s conduct during the attack.
The case was argued on appeal by Deputy State Public Defender Karen Hamilton of Sacramento and Deputy Attorney General Noah P. Hill of Los Angeles.
The case is People v. Butler, 09 S.O.S. 3723.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company