Friday, August 13, 2010
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Child Killing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for an Apple Valley area man convicted of killing his 5-year-old son in 1996.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for a unanimous court, said there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find Martin Carl Jennings guilty of first degree murder on theories of premeditation, murder-by-torture, and murder-by-poisoning, and to find that he tortured Arthur Jennings, making him eligible for the death penalty.
Jennings denied any intent to kill his son, claiming the boy died as a result of being fed powerful sedatives by his mother. But the totality of the evidence, George said, showed that Arthur died as a result of an ongoing series of beatings and deprivations for which his father was at least as responsible as his mother.
Martin and Michelle Jennings were tried together for murder, and both were found guilty of murder in the first degree.
A special-circumstance allegation of torture was found true as to Martin Jennings, but jurors could not agree as to whether it was true as to his wife as well. A special-circumstance allegation of murder-by-poison was found not true, as to both defendants.
San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Rufus L. Yent declared a mistrial as to Michelle Jennings, and the penalty phase of the trial went forward as to Martin Jennings only. Michelle Jennings was later sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, after the parties agreed to allow the judge to give a verdict on the poisoning allegation based on the testimony, and he concluded that she lacked the requisite intent.
The body of Arthur Jennings was found at the bottom of an abandoned desert mine shaft. Among his wounds was a blow to the head, and Martin Jennings later admitted hitting the boy in the head with a shovel, about an hour before he died.
The Jenningses reported their son missing on Feb. 6, but ultimately admitted to sheriff’s detectives that he had died at home and that the body was hidden in the mine shaft. In a joint interview, they detailed having abused the boy, although Martin Jennings said he did not want the boy to die.
Prosecution witnesses detailed how the Jenningses were ill-prepared to care for the child, who had returned to their home about three months earlier after having spent most of his young life in the care of Martin Jennings’ half-sister in Montana. The boy had what the parents described as “fits” or temper tantrums, but what experts said were likely epileptic seizures.
The parents acknowledged giving the boy the over-the-counter sleep aid Unisom, as well as Vicodin and Valium, and Martin Jennings acknowledged having personal acquaintance with the effect of those drugs. Asked what effect he thought they would have on his young son, he said he “didn’t think about it.”
Rejecting Jennings’ challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, the chief justice said there was enough proof to convict him on all three theories—premeditation, poisoning, and torture—given the testimony establishing that the boy died from a concurrence of events over a period of a number of months.
The jury’s rejection of the special circumstance of murder-by-poisoning, the chief justice said, was not inconsistent with the first-degree murder verdict. Jurors, George said, could have found that Martin Jennings gave the boy the medications—knowing what effect they would have and thus helping bring about his death—or that he aided and abetted his wife in doing so, or both.
In another case, the justices affirmed the death sentence for a man convicted of killing three women and burglarizing their residences, and of robbing two of them, in San Leandro and Hayward during a two-month period in 1987.
In a 6-1 decision, the court rejected arguments that Franklin Lynch should have been allowed to represent himself at trial. Justice Marvin Baxter said it was reasonable to deny his request because it was made on the eve of a scheduled trial, after Lynch had been represented by the same attorney for more than three years.
Baxter said Alameda Superior Court Judge Phillip Sarkisian correctly considered the relevant circumstances, including “not only the time between the motion and the scheduled trial date, but also such factors as whether trial counsel is ready to proceed to trial, the reluctance or availability of crucial trial witnesses, the complexity of the case, any ongoing pretrial proceedings, and whether the defendant had earlier opportunities to assert his right of self-representation.”
The court also rejected Lynch’s claim that the charges should have been tried separately. Baxter said there was a good deal of cross-admissible evidence, since the crimes were similar with respect to the age, gender, and race of the victims; the timing and location, and the motive.
George concurred in the opinion, as did Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn M. Werdegar, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan.
Justice Carlos Moreno dissented, arguing that the defendant should have been allowed to represent himself, and that denying him the right to do so violated his constitutional rights under Faretta v. California (1975) 422 U.S. 806.
Moreno noted that the case was not tried until several months after Lynch made his request, and said the decision was flawed in concluding “that factors other than time may be considered when determining whether a Faretta motion is timely.”
The cases are People v. Jennings, 10 S.O.S. 4725, and People v. Lynch, 10 S.O.S. 4751.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company