Tuesday, June 29, 2010
S.C. Rejects Denial-of-Counsel Claim, Upholds Death Sentence
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of the 1989 torture-murder of a 42-year-old Altadena woman, rejecting his claim that police violated his constitutional right to counsel by continuing to question him after he asked for a lawyer.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the high court, said it was clear from the circumstances that David Earl Williams did not want to delay talking to investigators after they told him they could not get him an attorney during the weekend.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. D. Smith, since retired, sentenced Williams to death in 1992 for the murder of Joanne Lacey, a post office supervisor, three years earlier. Smith, according to a news report, said Williams treated the victim with “a high degree of cruelty, callousness and viciousness.”
Robbery and Kidnapping
Prosecutors said Williams struck Lacey’s vehicle from behind, kidnapped and robbed her, then shot her in the hand, locked her in the trunk of her car, doused the vehicle with gasoline and burned her to death. Jurors found him guilty of first degree murder, robbery, arson, kidnapping for robbery, and kidnapping, with special circumstances of robbery-murder, kidnapping-murder, and torture.
Williams was implicated in the crime by Margaret Williams, the mother of his nephew. Margaret Williams was picked up on an outstanding warrant after allegedly telling a third person that she had been paid to supply the gasoline and serve as a lookout while Williams set the car afire.
David Williams was arrested four days after the murder and gave police four lengthy statements, all of which were eventually admitted into evidence, over a four-day period.
He initially denied any involvement, but after police asked him about burns on his hands, he told them that a woman named Loretta Kelley had picked him in a car that she admitted was stolen. He said he used gasoline in an attempt to burn the car because he was afraid of being caught in it and sent back to prison.
Williams had been previously convicted of rape and burglary and was on parole at the time. He also claimed that Kelley was carrying a great deal of cash, as well as some jewelry, and gave him a bracelet, but that he tried to dispose of the piece in a storm drain.
A detective found a bracelet at that location, and Lacey’s husband identified it as hers. Williams eventually acknowledged that a gun found near the burnt-out vehicle belonged to him and admitted the crime, but claimed that Kelley was involved and that she ignited the fire before he was ready, causing his burns.
Williams moved to suppress his statements to police, arguing—among other things—that questioning should have ended when he said he wanted to talk to a lawyer.
During his tape-recorded interrogation, leading to the initial statement, Williams said he wanted to give up his right to silence, and when asked whether he would also give up his right to have an attorney present, he responded, “You talking about now?”
The detective then asked “Do you want an attorney here while you talk to us?” and Williams answered affirmatively. But when another detective then said “You don’t want to talk to us right now,” Williams answered that he wanted to talk right then, and said “yeah” when the detective reiterated that he would talk without an attorney.
This prompted the first detective to clarify that Williams could wait until Monday—the interrogation took place on Saturday—and which time “they’ll send a public defender over, unless you can afford a private attorney, so he can act as . . . your attorney” and Williams insisted that he did not want to wait until Monday and answered “yes, yes, yes” when asked again if he would give up his right to an attorney.
In concluding that Williams freely and voluntarily waived his right to counsel, George explained that courts have established an objective test, under which waiver will be found if a person listening to the communication would have understood it as such.
The chief justice wrote:
“In light of defendant’s evident intent to answer questions, and the confusion observed by [Detective] Knebel concerning when an attorney would be available, a reasonable listener might be uncertain whether defendant’s affirmative remarks concerning counsel were intended to invoke his right to counsel. Furthermore, under the circumstances, it does not appear that the officers were ‘badgering’ defendant into waiving his rights; his response reasonably warranted clarification.”
George rejected a number of other claims of error, but agreed that the prosecutor had improperly argued that the death penalty was appropriate based on several biblical injunctions, including that “whoever sheds the blood of man shall his blood be shed, for in his image did God make man,” and that “He who fatally strikes the man shall be put to death.”
While prosecutors may permissibly make biblical arguments to reassure jurors that they can impose the death penalty without violating religious scruples, the chief justice explained, in this case “the prosecutor’s biblical references strayed beyond the bounds of permissible argument” because she “plainly invoked a religious justification for the death penalty.”
The statement was harmless, however, George concluded, “in light of the clear guidance afforded to the jury by the court’s instructions, the brevity of the challenged remarks in comparison to the prosecutor’s careful and extended discussion of the statutory factors, and the overwhelming nature of the factors in aggravation, including the heinous facts underlying both the charged crime and the prior conviction for rape.”
The case was argued in the Supreme Court by Deputy Attorney General Kenneth C. Byrne for the prosecution and Deputy State Public Defender Ellen J. Eggers for the defendant.
Also yesterday, the high court unanimously affirmed the death sentence for Cisco James Hartsch, convicted of three 1995 murders in Riverside County.
Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court, acknowledged that Riverside Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan failed to give the statutorily required statement of reasons for denying the defense motion to modify the death penalty verdict and sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. But the defense failed to object in the trial court and forfeited the argument, she said, adding that “by any measure, the aggravating evidence, weighed against the mitigating evidence, amply supported the jury’s penalty determination.”
The cases are People v. Williams, 10 S.O.S. 3483, and People v. Hartsch, 10 S.O.S. 3506.
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