Friday, August 26, 2011
High Court Upholds Death Sentence in Torrance Home Invasion
Justices Unanimously Reject Claim of Bias in Grand Jury Selection Process
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentences in two cases, including that of an Oregon man who killed a Torrance homeowner and committed a brutal sexual assault on his wife in 1993.
Justice Marvin Baxter said the defendant, Randy Garcia, failed to demonstrate error by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor at either the guilt or penalty phase of his 1994 trial. Among the contentions by the defense was that the manner in which the Los Angeles County grand jury that indicted Garcia was chosen discriminated against Hispanics and women.
Connor sentenced Garcia to die for the murder of Joseph Finzel. Jurors also found him guilty of the attempted murder, rape, attempted rape, and oral copulation of Lynn Finzel, the burglary of the Finzel home, and the burglary of a nearby home—whose residents were away on vacation—on the same night.
Prosecution evidence, including testimony by friends of the defendant, established that Garcia came to Torrance planning to buy marijuana to take back to the Portland area to sell. He told his companions he wanted to “do a job,” and went alone into the Finzel home.
Joseph Finzel was not home at the time, and the couple’s months-old infant was asleep in the bassinet. After threatening to hurt the baby if she did not cooperate, Garcia assaulted Lynn Finzel and ransacked the house, finding a gun in the process.
Joseph Finzel returned home while Garcia was still there. He shot both Finzels and stayed in the house for two to three hours, leaving them both for dead.
Lynn Finzel eventually made her way to the home of a neighbor, who called 911. Investigation by police in Torrance and in Oregon resulted in the arrest of Garcia, who—according to an officer’s testimony—concocted a story about being kidnapped by four Mexicans, who went to a house where they killed two people. When told by the officer that the female victim had survived and identified him, he responded with an expletive.
Selection Process Attacked
Garcia’s appellate lawyer, Deputy State Public Defender Peter R. Silten, argued that the grand jury selection process, which provided for nomination of grand jurors by judges and an extensive review process, effectively screened out women and minorities, particularly Hispanics.
Baxter, however, said the defense failed to establish that there was purposeful discrimination.
Under the selection procedure, he noted, potential grand jurors were chosen from two separate pools—volunteers and judge’s nominees. The screening process complained of by the defense, he said, is necessary because officials need to make certain that the chosen grand jurors have the desire, the time, and the ability to serve.
The evidence, he said, showed that a significant effort was made to encourage women and minorities to volunteer. And the use of judges to nominate members was not shown to create an imbalance, given the diversity of the large Los Angeles Superior Court bench and the court’s “pro-diversity policy,” Baxter said.
“Contrary to defendant’s view, nothing in these rules or procedures authorized, encouraged, or established that the judges nominated grand jurors in a manner that discriminated against women, Hispanics, or any other distinct group,” the justice said. “Rather, the criteria used to select nominees were gender- and race-neutral, and clearly sought to test qualifications without reference to any impermissible subjective factor.”
On another issue, Baxter rejected the defense claim that a prosecutor committed misconduct by reading two hypothetical “letters” in the penalty phase, suggesting that they could have been written by Finzel’s daughter and his son, who was away visiting his mother at the time of the murder.
The letters suggested that the children was sad and lonely at the loss of their father, and could not understand why he had been taken from them, whereas Garcia still had his father and stepfather living.
Baxter agreed with the prosecution’s appellate counsel, Deputy Attorney General Russell Lehman, that misconduct did not occur.
While the supposed letters were “not particularly artful” and a “questionable tactic,” the justice said, it was clear to the jury that no one was claiming that the children actually wrote them, and the “substantive point” of the letters was consistent with the rules governing admission of victim impact evidence.
Also yesterday, the court unanimously affirmed the death sentence for Erven Blacksher, a Berkeley resident convicted of shooting his sister and nephew to death in 1995. Prosecutors said Blacksher quarreled with the two over the nephew’s alleged involvement in cocaine dealing.
The defense argued that Blacksher was insane. But prosecutors showed he had a long history of violence and had been feuding with other family members for some time over the care of his elderly mother.
The cases are People v. Garcia, 11 S.O.S. 4750, and People v. Blacksher, 11 S.O.S. 4721.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company