Tuesday, February 1, 2011
S.C. Rejects Claim of Racial Bias in Death Penalty Jury Selection
Justices Accept Finding Juror Was Stricken for Attending ‘Controversial’ AME Church
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence of an African-American man convicted of killing an elderly white couple in Riverside County, rejecting his claim the prosecutor struck three of five black venire members for racial reasons.
With Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar and Carlos Moreno dissenting, the high court affirmed the sentence imposed on Albert Jones by Riverside Superior Court Judge Gordon Burkhart in 1996.
Justice Ming Chin said the court, absent “exceptional circumstances,” was required to defer to Burkhart’s finding that prosecutor Richard Bentley’s explanations for the challenges were plausible and race-neutral.
The three African Americans were among 16 potential jurors the prosecutor struck. The jury ultimately selected included one African-American juror and one African-American alternate.
Bentley explained that of the three blacks he struck, one indicated his son had been accused of a crime and had indicated by his body language that he may have been sympathetic to the defense counsel when he talked about someone “being falsely accused,” another had unemployed adult children, and the third was a woman who had answered her questionnaire but left blank the question about whether a family member had been accused of a crime, and belonged to a “controversial” church.
The woman in question said on her questionnaire that she belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the prosecutor explained:
“I assume that it’s the A.M.E. church up in LA. I constantly see A.M.E. on television. They are constantly controversial, and I don’t particularly want anybody that’s controversial on my jury panel.”
Burkhart agreed that the defense made a prima facie showing of racial bias. But he explained that “having heard from the prosecution, it appears that the reasons that these persons were excluded from the jury was for nonracial purposes and racially neutral purposes.”
The jury found Jones, who was 29 at the time of the murders and lived in the Riverside County community of Good Hope, guilty of first degree murder in the deaths of James Florville, 82, and his wife, Madalynne Florville, 72, in their Mead Valley home in 1993. The prosecution case depended in part on the testimony of several teenage boys that Jones had recruited them into his “clique,” as he called it; that he called them his “disciples,” that he talked about the clique committing robberies, and that one of the clique members, identified in the opinion as A.J., admitted in Jones’ presence that they “did the lick.”
A teenage neighbor, who was not part of the clique but who knew Jones and A.J., said he saw them enter the Florville residence. A.J. was tried as a juvenile and found to have participated in the murders.
Jurors found that that Jones committed the murders in the course of a robbery and a burglary, and voted to impose the maximum sentence at the close of the penalty phase. Jones continued to maintain his innocence, but news accounts of the sentencing quoted the judge as saying he had no doubt the jury reached the correct verdict.
Chin agreed that there was no problem with jury selection. “The record here shows that the prosecutor exercised his peremptory challenges to obtain a jury as favorable to his side as possible...and not to eliminate African-Americans for racial reasons,” Chin wrote.
He was joined in the opinion by Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin Baxter, and Carol Corrigan, and by retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George, sitting on assignment.
Werdegar, joined by Moreno, argued that the judge should have granted a mistrial based on the peremptory challenges.
The explanations did not dispel the inference of racism, Werdegar argued, because the evidence did not support them, particularly with respect to the woman who attended the A.M.E. church.
“The record does not show that D.L. attended a particular church in Los Angeles rather than one nearer her home in Riverside, that any particular A.M.E. church or the domination as a whole is any way controversial, or that D.L. herself shared any supposed controversial views,” Werdegar wrote.
She faulted the trial judge, saying he “remained largely silent throughout the prosecutor’s presentation,” and made “an uninformative global finding to the effect that the prosecutor had excluded the three jurors for “racially neutral purposes.’”
The dissenting justice elaborated:
“A trial court, having found that a prosecutor’s peremptory challenges establish a prima facie case of group bias, has an obligation to make a sincere and reasoned effort to evaluate the prosecutor’s justifications. This, the court below failed to do.”
The high court yesterday also affirmed the death sentence for Ronald Wayne Moore, convicted of killing Nicole Carnahan, the 11-year-old daughter of his Salinas neighbor, Rebecca Carnahan.
Nicole was stabbed to death in 1998 after coming home from school. The home had been ransacked, and property taken from the house was found at Moore’s home.
The defense argued on appeal that the evidence did not disprove the hypothesis that Moore went to the house to talk to the girl, and then killed her after an argument, thus negating the felony-murder theory of first degree murder.
Werdegar, writing for the court, said there was sufficient circumstantial evidence that Moore went to the house to steal.
“From the prosecution evidence, the jury could reasonably infer that defendant, a heroin addict without the money to pay his electricity bill, prearranged a passage to and from his neighbor’s backyard by removing the fence boards, armed himself with a knife and metal pipe, and donned gloves before going to Carnahan’s house,” the justice wrote. “He then used the weapons he had brought to attack Nicole, ransacked the Carnahan home, taking numerous items large and small, and began moving that property through the fence opening he had made, a process Carnahan interrupted when she came home.”
The cases are People v. Jones, 11 S.O.S. 624, and People v. Moore, 11 S.O.S. 638.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company