Friday, February 4, 2011
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Killing of High School Student
Questioning Outside Police Vehicle Did Not Require Miranda Warnings, Justices Say
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Police were not required to give Miranda warnings to a murder suspect whom they questioned at the rear of a police vehicle, from which they had just released him, a unanimous California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices affirmed the death sentence imposed by a Sonoma Superior Court judge on Alex Dale Thomas, a substitute janitor convicted of the 1997 rape-murder of a student at Rio Linda High School in the Grant School District in Sacramento County. The trial was moved to Sonoma County on a change of venue.
Michelle Montoya, age 18, was found dead after school in a shop classroom that Thomas had been assigned to clean. Thomas claimed he went into the classroom and found the body.
An autopsy established the victim had been struck with a blunt object, such as a crowbar, which was found nearby. DNA analysis established that the blood on the crowbar, and fragments of tissue found on Thomas’ pants, belonged to the victim, and other forensic evidence also tied him to the crime.
Sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene soon after the body was found, and one of them told Thomas he was “going to be detained” in a patrol car while detectives were summoned. He was not searched or handcuffed.
After about 20 minutes, another deputy allowed him out of the car, asked him to come to the rear of the vehicle, and requested an explanation of what had happened. He said he found the body, then called two other janitors, who called the principal.
The blood on his pants, he said, got there when he slipped running out of the classroom to report the death. While he spoke to the officer, another deputy took a shirt from Thomas’ pants pocket.
After 20 to 30 minutes of conversation, Thomas was returned to the backseat of the patrol car.
After being charged with murder and rape, Thomas moved to suppress his statements to the deputy. The motion was denied on the ground that he was not in custody and was thus not entitled to Miranda warnings.
At the ensuing trial, defense counsel conceded that Thomas killed the victim, but argued that he did not rape her. The two, counsel contended, had consensual sex, after which the defendant killed her in a panic because he thought that he could be convicted of statutory rape and sentenced to life in prison under the Three-Strikes Law.
Thomas was convicted of first degree murder, with a rape special circumstance, and rape. Jurors then voted to impose the death penalty, and Judge Wilfred Harpham pronounced sentence after denying the automatic motion to modify.
On appeal, the defense argued that the defendant was in custody from the time he was placed in the car, so the motion to suppress should have been granted
‘Not in Custody’
But Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the high court, said that even if the defendant was in custody while in the car, he made no statements while he was there. When he spoke to the officer, he was out of the car and unrestrained, so “he was not in custody for purposes of Miranda when he was questioned,” Moreno wrote.
The justice went on to reject the defense claim that the preliminary hearing testimony of a witness, introduced during the penalty phase to establish that Thomas had admitted his involvement in a jailhouse stabbing, should not have been admitted under the former-testimony exception.
The defense conceded that the prosecution made diligent efforts to locate the witness before trial, but said he should have been held as a material witness after the preliminary hearing because his alcoholism and drug addiction made it unlikely he would appear at trial otherwise.
But Moreno said there was no requirement to resort to such an extreme step.
He distinguished People v. Louis (1986) 42 Cal.3d 969, in which the court held that in order to have a witness declared unavailable, prosecutors had to make a reasonable effort not only to find the witness before trial, but also to prevent him or her from becoming absent in the first place.
Louis, Moreno explained, involved unusual circumstances, in that the witness—who had agreed to testify against his co-defendants—had a history of criminal convictions, mental illness, and failures to appear, and had refused to testify unless he would then be ‘released on his own recognizance to spend the weekend between the end of his testimony and his scheduled sentencing hearing with an unnamed friend at an undisclosed address.”
The witness in Thomas’ case, on the other hand, was not crucial to the prosecution’s case, was not of questionable credibility, and...”was neither charged with nor convicted of a crime and was not an imminent flight risk,” Moreno said, elaborating:
“He admittedly was unreliable...and the prosecutor remarked when Jones could not be located that he ‘always had my doubts as to whether or not he would appear,’ but this was not sufficient to require that Jones be placed in custody to ensure his presence at trial. The risk that a witness might not appear must be weighed against the witness’s substantial due process right not to be unreasonably incarcerated.”
The case is People v. Thomas, 11 S.O.S. 710.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company