Friday, April 24, 2009
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in L.A. Home Invasion Killing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a man who admitted shooting two people during a home invasion robbery near Baldwin Hills in 1996.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for a unanimous court, rejected claims that Carlos Hawthorne was a victim of racial discrimination in jury selection and of prosecutorial misconduct on cross-examination.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor sentenced Hawthorne to death in September 1997 after a jury found him guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances, two counts of robbery, and one count of attempted murder in the death of Vanessa Sells and the wounding of her teenage daughter Kristian Forte.
Connor agreed with the jury that the seriousness of the crime and the aggravating factors, including a prior robbery conviction, outweighed the mitigating factors. The defense argued that Hawthorne should receive a life sentence without parole because he had been abused as a child, suffered from a learning disability, and was genuinely remorseful.
Police arrested Hawthorne the day after the murders, when he placed a 911 call from a public phone and claimed to have seen two “dope smokers” with Sells’ Lexus, which had been identified as stolen in a television news report. The dispatcher kept him on the line long enough for police to close in on the phone booth, finding him in possession of the keys to the car—which was found parked less than a mile away—and of jewelry identified as Forte’s.
Hawthorne initially denied involvement in the crimes, but gradually changed his story. He admitted that he had been present, but blamed another man and said he was unarmed and had no intention of robbing or hurting anyone.
He eventually admitted having shot Forte, but contradicted her account and claimed that he had been forced to shoot her by his accomplice.
Forte was struck by three bullets, two in the head and one on the ear, but survived because none of the shots penetrated her skull. Her mother, who was found tied up in another room, was shot three times and died five days later.
On appeal, the defense argued that Connor should have granted a mistrial after the prosecutor struck three potential jurors who were African American. Chin, however, said that fact was not enough, in and of itself, to raise the required inference of discrimination.
The prosecutor, Chin noted, had offered race-neutral explanations for the challenges, saying the stricken venire members were “weak” in their willingness to impose the death penalty. But the justice found it unnecessary to assess the adequacy of those explanations, saying the defense failed to present a prima facie case of bias.
The three, he noted, were among 11 potential jurors who were removed by prosecution peremptory challenges. The defense, he added, proffered nothing as to how many African Americans were on the panel at the time of the mistrial motion and not stricken, or what the ultimate racial composition of the jury was.
The justice went on to reject claims that the prosecution had improperly used cross-examination of defense witnesses to put evidence of nonstatutory aggravating factors in front of the jury.
In one instance, a defense expert had testified that rather than being disposed toward violence, Hawthorne tended to act impulsively because of his attention deficit disorder. On cross-examination, however, the prosecutor got the witness to acknowledge that Hawthorne had been involved in fights at the California Youth Authority, to which he had been confined from age 17 until two months prior to the killings, when he was 20.
On another occasion, the defendant’s mother testified that he was not “really a bad child” when he was young. The judge then allowed the prosecutor to question her as to various past occurrences, including one in which he was sent to the CYA for a 90-day evaluation after he was charged with petty theft at the age of 11.
In each instance, Chin wrote for the court, the questioning was proper impeachment and the judge’s decision to allow it was not an abuse of discretion. The prior incidents were not so egregious that their admission into evidence was unduly prejudicial, the justice said, noting that Connor had instructed jurors on the limited purposes for which the evidence was to be considered.
The case was argued in the Supreme Court by Deputy Attorney General Russell A. Lehman of Los Angeles for the state and by Deputy State Public Defender Arcelia Hurtado of San Francisco for Hawthorne.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company