Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, May 25, 2010


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Court Upholds Death Penalty in Killing of Man With Disabilities

State Justices Reject Effort to Foist Blame Onto Accomplice




The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence in the case of an ex-convict convicted of killing a developmentally disabled man in an isolated section of Riverside County.

Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the court, rejected all claims of error by James Alvin Thompson in connection with his 1996 trial for the murder of Ronald Gitmed, who was 25 years old when he was killed in 1991. The court rejected Thompson’s claim that the sentence was unfair because he was not found to have personally shot the victim, suggesting that the man who implicated him was the actual killer.

Prosecutors said Thompson promised Gitmed $1,000 to drive him out to the Canyon Lake area, ostensibly to collect a $6,000 debt, but then forced him to disrobe at gunpoint, shot him three times, and stole his possessions.

The prosecution’s case was based largely on the testimony of Tony Mercurio, a friend of the defendant who was arrested several months after the shooting on unrelated charges. Mercurio told police that he was with Thompson when the shooting occurred, although he claimed he had no idea his friend intended to rob or kill Gitmed.

Accomplice Testimony

Mercurio agreed to testify truthfully about Thompson’s involvement as part of a plea bargain. He pled guilty to some of the original charges against him, as well as to helping Thompson dispose of Gitmed’s car, and spent a year in custody.

Prosecutors presented other witnesses who testified they saw Thompson with Gitmed’s car, and that Thompson and Mercurio took belongings out of Gitmed’s storage locker in Riverside.

The defense sought to impeach Mercurio’s testimony and offered alibi testimony that Thompson was having dinner with his uncle when the crime occurred. Jurors found the defendant guilty of first degree murder with a robbery special circumstance, but found “not true” the allegation that he personally used a firearm to commit the crime.

Thompson then fired his attorneys, said he wanted to receive the death penalty rather than life imprisonment without possibility of parole, and presented no witnesses or argument in opposition to the death penalty. Prior to the penalty phase, the jury found in a bifurcated proceeding that Thompson was previously convicted of first degree murder in Texas.

Penalty Phase

In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that in the Texas case, Thompson had gotten into an argument with a man who picked him up while hitchhiking. The man had gotten drunk and asked Thompson to drive, but the two quarreled after the man accused Thompson of taking his wallet, and Thompson stabbed him to death before taking money from the man’s pockets.

Prosecutors also presented testimony regarding the defendant’s prior conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm and the impact of the murder on the vulnerable victim’s family.

In denying the defense motion to set aside the death penalty verdict and imposing the sentence, Riverside Superior Court Judge Villa G. Sherman said that regardless of Mercurio’s possible involvement in the murder, the defendant had benefitted from it. The judge noted that some of the victim’s stolen property was found in the trunk of Thompson’s mother’s car and that Thompson himself had taken the victim’s car, although he later burned it in an effort to cover up the crimes.

The judge also noted the similarity between the killing of Gitmed and the Texas murder.

On appeal, the defense argued that the property found in the defendant’s mother’s car should have been suppressed as the fruits of an illegal warrantless search.

Probable Cause

Prosecutors successfully argued, however, that the search was supported by probable cause. They presented evidence that they had searched the mother’s house pursuant to a warrant, but that the mother’s daughter told them that the items they were looking for—which had been described by another witness as having been removed from the apartment of another family member—were in her mother’s car.

Police then waited for the mother to return home, and when she did they searched the trunk. Werdegar, writing for the high court, said the facts established probable cause for a search of the vehicle and all containers therein.

The justice also rejected the contention that because Mercurio testified that he was not involved in the shooting, and the jury found that the defendant did not personally use a firearm, there was insufficient evidence to convict Thompson.

Werdegar explained that even if the jury was uncertain as to what specific role Thompson played, there was enough evidence to convince a reasonable person that he either killed the victim personally or aided and abetted Mercurio in doing so.

The justice explained that where a jury relies on multiple grounds for conviction, and at least one of the grounds is factually sufficient, the verdict will stand absent a showing that the jury relied on an insufficient ground.

“[T]he evidence reasonably supports the inference that both Mercurio and defendant planned and carried out the robbery and murder,” Werdegar said. “Mercurio placed all the blame on defendant, but from the other evidence presented at trial the jury could reasonably have inferred Mercurio was a coperpetrator in the crimes.”

The court also rejected the argument that the death sentence was disproportionate to the defendant’s personal culpability.

“[T]he evidence supports the conclusion that defendant, even if not the shooter, was a major participant in the crime,” Werdegar wrote. “He intentionally maneuvered Gitmed, a particularly vulnerable individual, to an isolated spot for the purpose of robbing and killing him, which was effectuated by defendant acting alone or together with Mercurio.  As to defendant’s personal characteristics, he had committed a previous murder in Texas.  A prior murder is among the most compelling of aggravating circumstances.”

The case is People v. Thompson, 10 S.O.S. 2735.


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