Tuesday, July 28, 2009
S.C. Upholds Death Verdict for Woman in Two Murders
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death penalty for an East Palo Alto woman, rejecting claims that police used a pretextual burglary investigation to obtain a warrant to search for evidence she was involved in two homicides.
The justices affirmed a San Mateo Superior Court judge’s sentencing of Celeste Carrington for the murders of Victor Esparza, a janitor at a San Carlos shoe factory, and Carolyn Gleason, a property manager at a Palo Alto real estate firm, in two separate incidents in 1992.
Jurors found, as special circumstances, that the defendant committed multiple murders and that both murders occurred during the commission of robbery and burglary, and found her guilty of robbery and burglary of both murder victims. Both murders occurred at businesses where Carrington worked as a janitor.
She was also convicted of robbery, burglary and attempted murder in the shooting of pediatrician Allan Marks in his Redwood City office—Marks survived and testified at the trial—and of five other burglaries.
The high court affirmed all of the convictions except as to two of the burglaries. Those convictions were based on the use of stolen ATM cards, which does not constitute burglary of the ATM machine under an intervening Supreme Court decision.
Carrington was arrested days after the Marks shooting. Her apartment was searched pursuant to warrants obtained by the Los Altos, Palo Alto and Redwood City police, and evidence tying her to the crimes with which she was later charged was seized.
The Los Altos police obtained the first warrant, which was based on evidence linking Carrington to two burglaries unrelated to the charges for which she was ultimately tried. They were joined in the search by Palo Alto officers who were investigating the Gleason homicide, and who subsequently obtained their own warrant and conducted a second search.
Carrington was confronted with the evidence and confessed. The Redwood City police then obtained a third warrant and seized additional items.
The evidence seized included a gun that was stolen from a Redwood City car dealer. Testing established that the firearm had been used to shoot Esparza, Gleason and Marks.
Prior to trial, the defense attempted to suppress the evidence, arguing that the Los Altos police used their burglary investigation as an improper means of assisting the Palo Alto officers in searching for evidence of a homicide, even though they lacked sufficient evidence at the time to obtain their own warrant. Evidence presented at the suppression hearing revealed that Carrington was a suspect in a number of crimes in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and that several police departments were sharing information about the cases.
Superior Court Judge Margaret J. Kemp ruled that the Los Altos warrant was supported by probable cause, that the Palo Alto officers did nothing improper in accompanying their Los Altos colleagues during the first search, and that because the first search was valid and produced admissible evidence, the previous lack of probable cause to believe that Carrington was involved in a homicide did not invalidate the subsequent warrants.
Carrington presented no defense in the guilt phase of her trial. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented testimony regarding the impact of the crimes on the victims, and of an attempt by Carrington to escape from jail. The defense argued that Carringon’s life should be spared because she had a chaotic family life, including sexual abuse by her father beginning at age seven; had been under pressure to support her lover and her lover’s three children; and suffered from profound depression.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing yesterday for the Supreme Court, said the trial judge was correct in denying the motion to suppress. “Officers from another jurisdiction may accompany officers conducting a search pursuant to a warrant without tainting the evidence (pertaining to crimes that are the subject of their own investigation) uncovered in the process, even when the officers lack probable cause to support issuance of their own search warrant,” the chief justice wrote.
George rejected a number of other arguments, including the claim that officers implied that Carrington would not be charged with the Esparza murder if she confessed to it. It was clear to Carrington that the decision on what charges would be filed would be made by the prosecutors and not the police, the chief justice explained, and a suggestion that any mitigating circumstances—such as the possibility Carrington was taken by surprise and did not intend to shoot the victim—would be taken into account did not constitute a promise of leniency.
The chief justice also rejected the contention that the conviction was tainted by the systematic exclusion of persons over the age of 70 from the grand jury.
Under court rules, George explained, no adult is excused from jury service based solely on age, but persons over the age of 70 have the right to claim exemption based on physical or mental impairment without providing supporting documentation.
In Carrington’s case, the chief justice noted, defense counsel showed that deputy clerks in San Mateo Superior Court may have improperly excused potential jurors over the age of 70 without their claiming exemption.
George also pointed out, however, that there is no California authority for the position that senior citizens are a distinctive group for purposes of determining whether a jury was drawn from a fair cross-section of the population. And even if they are, he declared, there is no basis to depart from the usual rule that irregularities in the selection of the grand jury do not require reversal of a conviction absent a showing of prejudice.
He distinguished Vasquez v. Hillary (1986) 474 U.S. 254, holding that deliberate racial bias in the selection of a grand jury requires reversal of an ensuing conviction regardless of prejudice. The high court “has not extended the requirement of automatic reversal to other defects in the grand jury process,” George noted.
“In contrast to the deliberate racial discrimination addressed in Vasquez v. Hillary...the unwarranted exemption of some persons over the age of 70 years as a result of errors committed by court clerks is not the type of ‘evil’ that requires or justifies the extreme remedy of automatic reversal of a criminal conviction obtained as the result of a fair trial,” George wrote. “Indeed, in the present case the superior court’s practices regarding excusal of jurors over 70 years of age were discontinued shortly before the hearing.”
The case is People v. Carrington, 09 S.O.S. 4509.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company