Friday, July 9, 2010
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Oakland Woman’s Killer
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence of an Oakland man, acknowledging several instances of questionable prosecution conduct but concluding they were minor in context, were adequately responded to by the judge, and did not affect the outcome.
“The evidence of defendant’s guilt as the lone robber and killer of Sarah LaChapelle was strongly persuasive,” while “the balance of properly admitted aggravating and mitigating evidence weighed very strongly against defendant,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote.
LaChapelle, a social worker, was stabbed more than 50 times in her East Oakland home. Her ring finger was severed, in order to steal her wedding ring, prosecutors said.
The defendant, Gregory Tate, was convicted in Alameda Superior Court in 1992 of killing the 56-year-old LaChapelle, with burglary and robbery special circumstances, and sentenced to death the following year.
Tate was stopped by police while driving the victim’s car several hours after the murder, on April 19, 1988. He claimed he had borrowed the vehicle from a friend, but police learned that the friend was actually in jail, and had been for two weeks.
A television set and VCR belonging to the victim were found in the car, leading Tate to blame the killing on his friend, before learning that he was incarcerated.
Tate testified that he walked in front of the victim’s home—she was a neighbor of Tate’s grandmother, with whom Tate lived from time-to-time—and saw two men running out.
One of them dropped a pillowcase containing the stolen TV and VCR and some jewelry, so Tate took it, he said. He then went in the house and found the body, he testified, accounting for the victim’s blood being found on his sneakers.
The prosecution noted that Tate did not tell that to police, who questioned him for hours before arresting him, nor did he tell his grandmother what he had allegedly discovered.
Tate’s girlfriend gave some of the victim’s jewelry to police after they told her they believed he was involved in the homicide, and said he gave them to her. She also testified that he had given her a wedding band and an engagement ring, but had taken them back.
After jurors found Tate guilty, prosecutors presented penalty phase evidence of other episodes of violence, including a “road rage” incident in which Tate fired three shots at another motorist; an arrest following a traffic stop in which he rushed the officer, who knocked him down with a baton; and an incident in which he hit a woman in the face and put her in a chokehold.
The defense case in mitigation was based on evidence of an abusive childhood.
On appeal from the death sentence imposed by Alameda Superior Court Judge Alfred Delluchi, defense counsel argued that prosecutor Ted Landswick engaged in pervasive misconduct.
Among the remarks cited were a comment in opening argument that Tate had denied police consent to search his girlfriend’s residence, where he was living at the time; his asking a family member whether it was true that Tate had on several occasions “kicked in the door” of his grandmother’s residence; a number of questions asked of the defendant’s mother about supposed incidents of violence for which no evidence had been offered; a comment to the mother that “I don’t believe you’re to blame” for the defendant’s crimes; and a question to her about some gloves that the prosecutor insinuated had been used to commit a burglary.
Baxter, writing for the high court, said that several of those comments were certainly or arguably misconduct. But the judge handled them appropriately and gave proper jury instructions, and the verdict and sentence would have been the same regardless, the justice said.
There was no real question of Tate’s guilt, Baxter said, and the penalty phase evidence “portrayed him as a delinquent child and youth whose escalating violence culminated in the brutal murder and robbery of a female neighbor in her own home.”
“While the evidence suggested that defendant, as a child, suffered some rough or neglectful treatment from the men in his mother’s life, and that family tensions surfaced after the death of his grandfather, it also tended to show that he was raised by a mother who loved him and did her best, if imperfectly, to set him on the right path. There were no indications of serious mental or psychological issues. Under the circumstances, we are convinced there is no reasonable possibility that any instances of prosecutorial misconduct, whether considered singly or in combination, affected the penalty outcome.”
The court also upheld Delucchi’s response to a question from the jury, which said it needed help because it was “irrevocably deadlocked” in the penalty phase, as to whether death or life imprisonment without possibility of parole was “the more severe punishment.”
Rather than instruct the jury that death was more severe, an approach the high court has upheld, Delucchi said he couldn’t answer the question, then proceeded to re-read the standard instruction on weighing aggravating and mitigating factors.
Baxter said the judge acted within his discretion. The instruction, the justice said, made it clear that death is the more severe penalty, since it can only be imposed if the aggravating factors substantially outweigh those in mitigation.
“It follows that the trial court adequately conveyed this principle by reinstructing the jury with CALJIC No. 8.88,” the justice wrote. “Indeed, by indicating that no further rereading was necessary, the jury appeared to signal that the court’s approach had clarified the issue.”
In another case yesterday, the high court denied a habeas corpus petition by Alfredo Reyes Valdez, a Pomona man sentenced to death for a 1989 robbery-murder.
The justices agreed with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan, who served as the factfinder in the case, that defense attorney Anthony Robusto made reasonable tactical choices in not presenting potentially exculpatory evidence.
Valdez’s habeas attorney, Marilee Marshall of Los Angeles, argued that Robusto should have built a third-party culpability case based on the possibility that Liberato Gutierrez, who was found in the alley behind the victim’s house shortly after the crime with spots of blood on his boots and clothing, was the killer.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the high court, agreed with Horan that Robusto, who knew that his client was the killer because Valdez told him so, had little to gain and much to lose by blaming the murder on Gutierrez. The claim would have been easily refuted, the justice said, because prosecutors would have tested the blood from Gutierrez’s shirt and boots and found it was not the victim’s.
Further prosecutors might have decided to do DNA testing of other evidence, including blood on the handle of a gun found in defendant’s vehicle, “which Robusto was certain had come from the victim,” Moreno explained.
Deputy Attorney General Carl N. Henry represented the prosecution in the Supreme Court.
The cases are People v. Tate, 10 S.O.S. 3816, and In re Valdez, 10 S.O.S. 3807.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company