Tuesday, August 4, 2010
S.C. Upholds Death Sentences in Shotgun Slayings
Justices Reject Challenge to Tape Used as Victim Impact Evidence
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence for a man convicted of the 1994 shotgun slayings of two 18-year-old college students near a firehouse in Highland Park.
Nathan Verdugo was convicted of killing Richard Rodriguez and Yolanda Navarro. Prosecutors said Verdugo viciously pursued the couple, crippling Rodriguez with a shot to the leg before firing the fatal shot, then chasing Verdugo down and shooting her as she begged for her life.
The lead investigator in the case called it “one of the most brutal crimes I’ve ever investigated,” according to a news account.
The motive for the shootings, prosecutor said, was revenge for an attack on a friend of Verdugo by a woman at a Halloween party hours earlier in Glassell Park. The attacker, however, was not Navarro, but another woman who resembled her, according to witnesses.
Verdugo was arrested the following year at his father’s home in Rialto.
In the guilt phase of the trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis Rappe instructed jurors that they could find Verdugo guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter, with respect to the killing of Navarro, but not as to the killing of Rodriguez.
The judge reasoned that while the defendant may have felt provoked into killing the woman because he mistakenly believed she had attacked his friend, he could not have harbored any such belief with respect to the male victim.
After jurors found Verdugo guilty of two counts of first degree murder with a multiple-murder special circumstance, the case proceeded to a penalty phase, in which prosecutors emphasized the impact of the killings on the victims’ families. Among the witnesses was Navarro’s mother, who explained that her father died seven months after she was killed.
She testified that on the day of the Halloween party, Navarro finished recording an approximately 40-minute cassette tape with Mexican songs sung in Spanish, and gave it to her father as a gift before leaving. Some of the songs were played for the jury, over defense objection.
On appeal, the defense argued that the trial judge should have given voluntary manslaughter instructions as to both counts, but Justice Joyce Kennard disagreed.
While there was some evidence that the shootings were preceded by a collision between Rodriguez’s car and the victim’s, the justice wrote, “there is no evidence that Rodriguez was responsible for the collision or that defendant killed Rodriguez in a heat of passion due to the collision.”
Nor, Kennard said, could a voluntary manslaughter instruction be predicated on the assistance furnished by Rodriguez to Navarro, who the defendant believed to be his friend’s attacker. It is a “settled principle,” Kennard explained, that provocation will not cause a homicide to be classified as manslaughter, rather than murder, unless the provocative acts were committed, or were reasonably believed by the defendant to have been committed, by the victim.
Nor did the lack of a manslaughter instruction deprive the defendant of his constitutional right to have the jury consider finding him guilty of a non-capital crime, since the judge did instruct on second degree murder, Kennard wrote.
With respect to the victim-impact evidence, the justice rejected the argument that the judge abused his discretion by allowing an overly dramatized presentation, particularly with regard to the tape.
“The tape was moving because it demonstrated the close bond between Yolanda and her father, because it included songs about the loss of a loved one, and because Yolanda presented it to her father shortly before her death,” the justice explained. “It thus demonstrated the relationship lost as a result of Yolanda’s murder, and the impact her death had on her father. These were circumstances of the crime appropriately considered by the jury.”
Kennard’s opinion was joined by every member of the court except Justice Carlos Moreno, who argued that the tape should not have been admitted, but said its admission was not prejudicial.
“The contents of the cassette had nothing to do with defendant’s character, culpability, or the circumstances of the offense, which are supposed to be the jury’s sole concern during the penalty phase....The fact that she selected sad songs rather than happy ones, Spanish songs rather than English ones, one genre rather than another, did not make defendant more or less deserving of the death penalty. On the other hand, these songs of loss, even if the jury did not understand Spanish lyrics, had the distinct potential of being used to manipulate the juror’s emotions.”
But the tape was a small part of the prosecution’s case, so its exclusion would not have changed the outcome, the concurring justice wrote.
The case is People v. Verdugo, 10 S.O.S. 4433.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company