Tuesday, November 29, 2011
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Fresno Jailhouse Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a man who strangled a cellmate in the Fresno County jail in 1992.
Justice Ming Chin said Ronnie Dale Dement failed to demonstrate legal error in the guilt or penalty phases of his 1994 Fresno Superior Court trial. Judge Stephen Henry pronounced the death sentence after jurors returned a death penalty verdict, based on special circumstances of murder while engaged in attempted oral copulation, and prior murder.
Dement killed Gregory Michael Andrews seven months after being convicted of the second degree murder of David Dement, the defendant’s brother. That killing allegedly resulted from a dispute over money the defendant claimed he had lent the victim and the victim claimed he had repaid.
Witnesses testified that Dement beat Andrews because he was upset the inmate had been placed in his cell, which already had two other inmates and only three beds. There was also testimony that Dement was aware that Andrews was a friend of a man who’s had an affair with the defendant’s wife.
Inmates said Dement slapped Andrews, ripped off his underwear, tried to force him to kiss the defendant’s genitals, and started choking him.
When one inmate used a call button to alert correctional officers, the defendant told Andrews to be quiet, and asked for the time. After the officer informed him of the time, according to the testimony, Dement choked the screaming Andrews a second time, and then a third, killing him.
About an hour later, the cell doors opened and the inmates went to breakfast. Dement’s cellmates testified he threatened them not to say anything about what had transpired, but after breakfast they pushed the call button and informed the staff there was a dead body in their cell.
Andrews’ family later sued Dement and jail officials in federal court. A jury exonerated the jailers but awarded punitive damages of $3.25 million against Dement.
Prosecutors also presented penalty phase evidence that the defendant had assaulted his wife hours before shooting his brother and had been convicted earlier of three robberies and possession of a concealed weapon.
The defense contended that the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole based on his dysfunctional childhood, which included exposure to drugs and alcohol from a young age; physical abuse by his mother, who would also leave him with a babysitter for up to two weeks at a time, and who went to jail for six months on drug charges when he was around 11; and watching his stepfather beat his sister, eventually resulting in her being placed in foster care.
Witnesses also testified that Dement was genuinely remorseful about his crimes, was cooperative with his jailers during the trial, and had been studying the Bible.
On appeal, the defense argued that illegal prison letters, or “kites,” in which Dement appeared to admit the murder were improperly admitted. The kites were written to Trinidad Ybarra, an inmate who was arrested on a drug charge and who, while in state prison two years earlier, had begun the “debriefing” process for leaving a gang.
Ybarra testified that Dement, who was in a nearby cell, was sympathetic to that gang, so Ybarra initiated the process of getting information from him to submit to authorities. He said he was hoping to obtain a confession in order to obtain a deal from prosecutors regarding the drug charge, and that he acted completely on his own.
He said he met with a detective, Bradley Christian of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, who took the kites and promised to give them to prosecutors, but said he could not make promises regarding Ybarra’s case. The detective gave similar testimony.
The defense contended that the kites were obtained in violation of Massiah v. United States (1964) 377 U.S. 201, which bars the government and its agents from eliciting incriminating statements from a suspect who has been charged by a crime and is known to be represented by counsel.
Chin, however, agreed with the trial judge that because Ybarra had no previous informant relationship with police, he was not an agent for Massiah purposes.
The justice elaborated:
“Even assuming the first kite was received after Ybarra’s first meeting with Detective Christian, nothing in Christian’s statements to Ybarra demonstrates that Christian intentionally created or knowingly exploited a situation likely to induce defendant to make incriminating statements without the assistance of counsel,” Chin wrote. “Defendant relies on Christian’s statement that Ybarra should retain anything he received from defendant. Such passive behavior on the part of Ybarra was unlikely to induce defendant to make incriminating statements.”
Chin also rejected the defense attack on the sufficiency of the evidence to prove the oral copulation special circumstance.
The testimony of the other men in the cell established the defendant’s conduct and intent, Chin said. Given the brutality with which the defendant beat the victim, and his tearing off of the victim’s shorts and his comments to cellmates inviting them to sodomize him, jurors could only draw the inference that the sex offense had an independent criminal intent and “was not merely incident to the murder.”
The case is People v. Dement, 11 S.O.S. 6322.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company