Tuesday, December 20, 2011
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Woman Who Killed Her Children
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a San Diego County woman who shot and killed her four sons in 1997.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court, said evidentiary errors at the trial of Susan Dianne Eubanks were minor and did not affect the verdict or sentence.
A San Diego Superior Court jury found Eubanks guilty of murdering her sons Brandon, 14; Austin, 7; Brigham, 6; and Matthew, 4, in October 1997. Prosecutors said that Eubanks, after drinking and taking tranquilizers, put a revolver to Brandon’s head, and shot him.
She fired again from inches away, then shot the younger boys in their bedroom, before shooting herself. Notes found shortly after the shooting, along with testimony from witnesses, revealed a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse, and that she had repeatedly separated from and reconciled with her husband.
At the time of the shootings, she and Eric Eubanks—the father of the two youngest children—were undergoing a divorce, and he had moved out of the house a month earlier. She was living with another man, who was in the process of moving out, and in one of her notes, she accused the two men of conspiring against her.
Evidence showed that Eubanks had become addicted to prescription drugs after an on-the-job injury and lost her job. More than 50 prescription bottles were found in the house.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Joan Weber denied the defendant’s automatic motion for modification of the jury’s death penalty verdict.
On appeal, the defense argued that evidence obtained in searching the house, including the defendant’s notes, should have been suppressed because the warrant was too unspecific in allowing police to look for “documents and effects which tend to show possession, dominion and control over such premises, including . . . anything bearing a person’s name, . . . or other form of identification .”
Chin, however, said that given what was known at the time—that three of the children had been shot to death, and the fourth was seriously wounded, as was Eubanks—the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that the warrant identify “the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
While the letters did not directly relate to the question of “dominion and control,” Chin added, their seizure was legal because the police entered legally under the warrant and found them in plain view.
The defense also challenged the pretrial jury screening procedures, which they argued deprived Eubanks of a jury representing a fair cross-section of the community because they screened out Hispanics who were not English-proficient.
The objections, Chin said, were largely forfeited because they were not raised in the trial court.
The court did reach the merits of a constitutional challenge to a Code of Civil Procedure section requiring jurors to be English-proficient. The defense argued that this violates due process and equal protection guarantees, but Chin said the law serves a significant state interest, because trials are conducted entirely in English; translation services are provided to witnesses and defendants who need them, but not to jurors; and requiring proficiency in the language helps ensure “the uniform and efficient administration of the justice system.”
The high court also determined that Weber did not abuse her discretion when she allowed an expert to testify for the prosecution concerning the impact of dilution on blood-alcohol content.
The defense contended that Eubanks had ingested a quantity of drugs and alcohol so great that she could not have formed the intent to commit murder. Dr. Vina Spiehler, a pharmacologist, testified for the prosecution that the defendant’s blood alcohol level at the time of the shootings was about .09 percent.
Battle of Experts
But a defense expert said that the actual level was more than double that, and that the readings that Spiehler based her opinion on were unreliable because Eubanks had been infused with saline by paramedics about an hour after the shootings. Weber allowed Spiehler to testify on rebuttal that the infusion of saline would not have had the significant impact testified to by the defense expert.
She based her opinion, she said, on professional literature and on her experience working in a coroner’s office where she had examined before and after samples of blood-alcohol levels in 10 to 15 individuals who had received blood transfusions or intravenous fluids while being treated in the hospital.
The defense objected to Spiehler being allowed to testify based on her experiences at the coroner’s office. But Chin rejected the argument that the testimony was subject to the Kelly test for the admission of scientific evidence, and also concluded that there was no reason to apply a heightened standard for the admission of such evidence in capital cases.
Chin did agree with the defense that Weber erred during the case in mitigation, when she barred testimony that the defendant had been molested by her father as a child. The trial judge held that there was no foundation because Eubanks never mentioned any such molestation to a mental health professional.
While that ruling was erroneous, Chin said, it made no difference to the outcome of the case because it had very little probative value.
The case is People v. Eubanks, 11 S.O.S. 6803.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company