Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Justices Uphold Death Sentence in Sacramento Rape-Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence imposed for the rape and murder of a Sacramento woman.
Rejecting claims that Sacramento Superior Court Judge James L. Long allowed racial bias in jury selection and showed a pro-death-penalty bias in his rulings on challenges to potential jurors, the court upheld Jeffery Jon Mills’ convictions and sentence for the murder, rape, sodomy and sexual penetration of Sherri Farrar.
The 21-year-old Farrar was found dead 16 years ago this month, naked and with her throat slit, along a road less than four miles from a warehouse where the defendant worked. The victim had worked at the warehouse in the past, and her grandmother was working there that night.
Argument With Boyfriend
Testimony established that Farrar had an argument with her boyfriend earlier, got out of his car, and walked off in the direction of the warehouse. Mills, who was linked to the crime through fingerprints on various objects at the scene, eventually admitted to striking the fatal blow but claimed the sex was consensual.
He said Farrar became angry at something he said, cursed at him, and told him she had AIDS. At that, he claimed, he “just exploded and I jumped at her,” stabbing her with a Swiss Army knife he kept on a keychain.
He admitted he then got rid of his bloody clothes, knife, and other physical evidence. He acknowledged prior convictions for auto theft, false personation, possession of marijuana, and residential burglary.
On appeal, the defense contended that Long should not have allowed jurors to be examined regarding their views on the death penalty, or else granted a separate trial on penalty before a new jury. The trial judge cited a long list of cases, beginning with Hovey v. Superior Court (1980) 28 Cal.3d 1, which approve “death qualification” of juries in capital cases.
Berkeley lawyer Ezra Hendon, the defendant’s court-appointed appellate counsel, urged the high court to consider studies over the past several years suggesting that death-qualification is far more likely to weed out jurors staunchly opposed to the death penalty than those who would reflexively vote to impose it, and that juries chosen in this manner are far more likely to convict.
No ‘Constitutional Prohibition’
But Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the high court, said the trial judge was correct regardless of the state of current research. Werdegar agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court that whatever the studies prove, they do “not support a constitutional prohibition of such death qualification.”
Werdegar also rejected the defense contention that the trial judge should have granted a mistrial based on the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges to remove six African Americans from the jury venire.
Long’s findings that those potential jurors were stricken for race-neutral reasons are supported by substantial evidence and entitled to deference, the justice said.
She noted that five of those excused had expressed a hesitancy to impose the death penalty, and agreed that the strength of those views, along with other factors such as a distrust of scientific evidence, distinguished them from white or Hispanic venire members who were not stricken.
Werdegar also agreed with the trial judge that prosecutors legitimately objected to the sixth stricken black venire member, who expressed opinions that O.J. Simpson’s guilt was not proven and that Satan ruled the world. “Although...other jurors who were not challenged also expressed strong religious views, none were as strident in their religious views, and none expressed similar views regarding the Simpson trial,” the justice wrote.
Also rejected was the argument that the judge demonstrated bias by being overly rigorous in his questioning of potential jurors expressing anti-death-penalty views. Noting that the defendant’s trial counsel declined an opportunity to reexamine those venire members before they were excused, “we are satisfied the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting the prosecutor’s challenges for cause because each identified juror made it clear that the juror would not, or could not, vote to impose the death penalty,” Werdegar said.
On another issue, the high court held that the judge did not abuse his discretion by excluding evidence that the victim and her boyfriend had a violent relationship, suggesting that some of the wounds on the victim’s body were not inflicted by the defendant. That evidence was excludable under Evidence Code Sec. 352, Werdegar said, because it was speculative and the time that would be consumed would outweigh its probative value.
Besides, Werdegar said, the exclusion of the testimony was harmless because the jury heard other evidence regarding the tumultuous nature of the relationship.
Deputy Attorney General Paul Bernardino of Sacramento argued for the prosecution before the high court.
The case is People v. Mills, 10 S.O.S. 1035.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company