Tuesday, August 30, 2011
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Murder of Fresno Teenager
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a Fresno man convicted of the murder and attempted rape of a 14-year-old girl and the attempted murder of her best friend.
In an opinion spanning nearly 200 pages, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye cited a half-dozen instances in which Fresno Superior Court Judge John Fitch clearly or arguably erred. But defendant Royal Clark Jr. was not prejudiced in the guilt, sanity, or penalty phases of his lengthy trial, the chief justice said.
“Given the strong evidence of defendant’s guilt of first degree murder and the aggravating circumstances attending that crime, we further conclude that none of the trial court’s missteps amounted to substantial error and there was no prejudicial cumulative effect warranting reversal,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.
Clark was sentenced in 1995 for the killing of Billie-Jo Laurie Farkas, whose body was found on a rural road in Madera County in January 1991. Her friend Angie Higgins, then 15, was found badly beaten in a rural area of Fresno County.
Higgins testified that Clark, whose girlfriend Donna Kellogg was a cousin of the murdered girl, drove the two Fresno High School students to Lost Lake Recreation Area to look for a party, then became angry when Farkas refused to have sex with him. Others testified that Clark had shown a longstanding sexual interest in the victim.
The prosecution presented evidence that Clark tied up Higgins in one restroom, then took Farkas to another and strangled her with a rope. Higgins said Clark told her Farkas had run away, then put her in his car and drove towards the area of southwest Fresno called “Chateau Fresno.”
Higgins was choked with a rope, then left by the roadside at about 3 a.m. She was found by a passing motorist and hospitalized.
Clark confessed to assaulting Higgins and killing Farkas, whom he said was like a sister to him. He pled not guilty by reason of insanity, and a defense expert testified he became insane at the point he assaulted Higgins and that he remained in that state during the next four to six hours until he returned home, but jurors found him sane.
He was found guilty of eight felonies—the first degree murder and attempted rape of Farkas, the attempted murder, felonious assault, false imprisonment, and kidnapping of Higgins, and the robberies of both girls, based on the taking of small amounts of money they had in their pockets.
The jury also found three special-circumstances—murder in the commission of robbery, murder in the commission of attempted rape, and murder with intent to prevent the victim from testifying in a criminal proceeding. The last special circumstance was based on evidence Clark killed Farkas, in part, because he feared she would tell police he had assaulted Higgins.
In the penalty phase, the prosecution portrayed Clark as a violent man, presenting testimony from two witnesses from Texas that he once slit a man’s throat and stole his money on a train. Clark, who was convicted of robbery in that incident and imprisoned, later assaulted two fellow inmates, and committed two batteries and a robbery in California after his release, the evidence showed.
The defense urged jurors to spare Clark, citing his mental problems and abusive childhood, and the fact that he was a father of five children, three of them with Kellogg. But jurors, who deliberated for about five hours, according to a Fresno Bee account, retuned a death penalty verdict.
Jurors told the newspaper that the deliberate nature of the murder, the fact that the victim trusted Clark, and his lack of remorse led them to their verdict.
The defense argued on appeal that the penalty verdict was flawed by an inconsistency in the special-circumstance verdict. The sequence of events, they argued, precluded a finding that Clark killed the victim in the course of attempted rape and robbery and also to prevent her from testifying about what he had done to Higgins earlier.
It was also argued that Clark’s right to a fair determination of penalty was violated because the court ordered his lead lawyer, who was ill, replaced during a months-long recess prior to the penalty phase, and that jurors may have forgotten testimony or been exposed to prejudicial publicity during the interim.
Cantil-Sakauye said there was nothing in the law that precludes different special-circumstance findings based on multiple intents.
“That defendant’s plan to engage in sexual intercourse with Laurie preceded his decision to silence her as a witness to Angie’s assault by killing her meant only that he had more than one reason for killing her,” the chief justice explained. “There is no inconsistency in the application of both special circumstances here.”
With respect to the replacement of counsel, Cantil-Sakauye said Fitch acted within his discretion when Deputy Public Defender Barbara O’Neill, the lead counsel in the guilt phase, underwent cancer treatment and reported that she did not know when, if at all, she would be able to resume representing Clark. Under the circumstances, the chief justice said, the judge was not obligated to wait for the results of O’Neill’s scheduled surgery before taking her off the case.
The chief justice also approved of Fitch’s handling of the delay prior to the penalty phase.
The publicity issue, she said, was adequately handled by asking jurors if they had been exposed to the media coverage. Since none indicated that they had, nothing further was required, Cantil-Sakauye said.
And “even if the lengthy delay caused jurors to forget evidence presented at the guilt or sanity phase, their memories could be restored by referring to their notes, requesting readbacks of testimony, and relying on counsel’s review of the guilt and sanity phase evidence during closing arguments,” she wrote.
The chief justice was joined by Justices Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan, and by Court of Appeal Justice Sandy Kriegler, of this district’s Div. Five, sitting on assignment.
Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Kathryn M. Werdegar, in separate opinions, disagreed with the majority as to the sufficiency of the evidence that Farkas was killed to prevent her from becoming a witness.
The dissenters argued that the prosecution did not prove that Farkas “witnessed a crime prior to, and separate from, the killing,” an essential element of the special circumstance. But the error was harmless, they said, because the other two special circumstances were sufficient to impose the death penalty, and the evidence presented as to the circumstance of witness killing was admissible in any event because it was relevant to the circumstances of the crime.
The case is People v. Clark, 11 S.O.S 4802.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company