Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, July 29, 2011


Page 1


S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Machine-Gun Killing


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of shooting another motorist to death in San Diego because the victim had flirted with the defendant’s girlfriend when the vehicles were stopped at an intersection.

The justices unanimously concluded that there was sufficient evidence of aggravating circumstances for a San Diego Superior Court jury to return a death penalty verdict against Correll Lamont Thomas for the 1996 submachine gun killing of Creed Grote, which occurred in the community of Spring Valley.

Prosecutors relied primarily on the testimony of Grote’s passenger, Troy Ortiz, and the defendant’s girlfriend to convict Thomas of the murder. Thomas was also found guilty of a reduced charge of second degree murder in the death of Ricky McDonald, who died from injuries sustained in a beating weeks prior to the Grote killing.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Nicole Halstead, also testified about the McDonald killing.

Jurors deadlocked, however, as to the death penalty, necessitating a second trial. The second jury returned the death penalty verdict, and Judge Alan Preckel imposed the sentence.

Prosecutors cited the two murders, as well as several past crimes—a Stockton murder, a fatal negligent shooting in El Cajon, and a home invasion robbery in the latter city as aggravating circumstances. The defense presented several friends and family members to testify that Thomas, despite a difficult childhood and continuing substance abuse problems, was a caring person with a particular interest in helping children with specially needs.

The defense did not dispute that Thomas shot Grote—although it claimed another man was responsible for the McDonald murder. Counsel did, however, contend that the Grote killing was not premeditated, saying Thomas was under the influence of prescription sedatives and alcohol.

Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court, rejected the defense contention that because the El Cajon shooting involved no more than gross negligence, it should not have been considered a crime of violence and not used as an aggravating sentencing factor.

Citing Penal Code Sec. 190.3, the justice explained that “the jury is permitted to consider the ‘presence or absence of criminal activity by the defendant which involved the use or attempted use of force or violence or the express or implied threat to use force or violence.’...The requisite ‘criminal activity’ must violate a penal statute and ‘the use or attempted use of force or violence or the express or implied threat to use force or violence’ must be directed at a person.”

The evidence, Corrigan said, showed that Thomas fired a gun—the same one used in the home-invasion robbery—at the residence of a man who had been an altercation with Halstead earlier. Firing a gun near a person’s home, in a residential neighborhood and after making a threat against that person, satisfies the elements of Penal Code Sec. 246.3(a), which makes it a crime to fire a gun in a “grossly negligent manner which could result in death for injury to a person,” the justice wrote.

The case is People v. Thomas, S082828.


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