Wednesday, February 23, 2011
S.C. Again Upholds Sentence in Killing of Desert Filmmakers
Ruling Is Third Against Inmate Claiming ‘Death Row Redemption’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The admitted killer of three people who were helping a USC film student make a film in the Mohave Desert was not entitled to an instruction telling jurors to ignore two previous death penalty verdicts that had been thrown out on appeal, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the high court upheld the death sentence for David L. Murtishaw for the murders of James Henderson, 24, Marti Soto, 21, and Ingrid Etayo, 22. Jurors at his third trial in Kern Superior Court rejected what Justice Carlos Moreno described yesterday as a “Death Row Redemption” defense and voted to impose the maximum sentence.
Murtishaw was convicted and sentenced to death for the first time in 1978, making him one of Death Row’s longest-serving denizens. Two years later, the state high court upheld his conviction, but voted 6-1 in favor of a new penalty trial on the ground that a mental health expert should not have been allowed to testify that the defendant was likely to behave violently in prison.
The penalty retrial again resulted in the death sentence, which the state high court affirmed in 1989, but the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001 ordered another penalty trial on the basis of what it said was prejudicial instructional error.
At the third trial, held in 2002, the prosecutors again presented evidence that the murder victims were helping USC film student Lance Wyatt make a film when Murtishaw and his brother-in-law, Greg Laufenberger, stumbled on to the set carrying rifles.
They asked Wyatt to drive them into town, which he said he would do after he finished filming. The men left, but later returned, and Murtishaw started firing at the four.
Wyatt ran toward and reached the highway, flagged down help, and tried to lead police back to the site, but was unfamiliar with the area. The police arranged for paramedics to take Wyatt, who had been shot in the hand, to the hospital while they searched.
The eventually found Wyatt’s car and the bodies of Henderson and Etayo, who had been shot multiple times. Soto, who was Wyatt’s wife, was found wounded and later died at a hospital, having taken a gunshot to the head.
Murtishaw surrendered and gave a tape-recorded statement in which he claimed that he had been drunk, and that someone came running toward him when “something went bang” and he started firing because he was “scared and just mixed up.”
Murtishaw and Laufenberger were both charged. Charges against Laufenberger were dismissed. before the preliminary hearing, however, and he testified for the prosecution.
While Murtishaw continued to claim that he was extremely drunk and fired in self-defense, prosecutors presented a former inmate as a rebuttal witness at the last trial. The witness testified that the defendant told him he killed the victims in order to steal their car to sell for drugs.
The defense argued that Murtishaw, after nearly a quarter-century on Death Row, was a different person.
They said he had undergone a religious transformation, converting to Christianity in 1983, and had immersed himself in dictionaries and Bible commentaries to write “Gospel harmonies” that had been internationally distributed. The defense also noted that he had never been disciplined in prison, and contended that Murtishaw was mentally impaired at the time of the murders.
Moreno, writing for the high court, rejected the argument that Judge Roger Randall, who conducted the third trial prior to retiring, should have given a sua sponte instruction that the two prior death penalty verdicts should have no effect on jurors’ deliberations.
The general rule in California, Moreno explained, is that when evidence is admissible for at least some purposes, the trial court need not give a limiting instruction in the absence of a defense request. An earlier high court decision said an exception might apply if the prosecution offered evidence that was “both highly prejudicial and minimally relevant to any legitimate purpose.”
That exception could not apply to Murtishaw, he said, because it was the defense, as part of its “redemption” defense, that informed the jury of the prior verdicts.
Moreno also rejected the contention that the defense was entitled to a sua sponte instruction that jurors could consider, as a mitigating circumstance, that Murtishaw believed, if unreaonably, that he was acting in self-defense. The issue was adequately covered, the justice said, by the standard instruction allowing jurors to consider any extenuating circumstance related to the defendant or to the crime.
The case is People v. Murtishaw, 11 S.O.S. 973.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company