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Friday, May 20, 2011


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High Court Upholds Death Sentence in Sacramento McDonald’s Murder




The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence for a McDonald’s employee who killed a co-worker during an armed robbery.

Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar authored the opinion of the court, which rejected arguments on behalf of Sean Venyette Vines, including claims of racial bias in jury selection and improper exclusion of third-party culpability evidence.

 Vines, now 37, was sentenced to death by Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Long in 1997 after a jury found him guilty of shooting Ronald Lee, a 21-year-old manager trainee at the restaurant, in the back of the head. Vines, who had previously worked with Lee at the fast food outlet, reportedly said he killed “my friend” because Lee recognized him and uttered his name.

Vines, who had at least two prior felony convictions, was also convicted of eight counts of robbery, five counts of assault with a deadly weapon, four counts of kidnapping to commit robbery, four counts of false imprisonment, and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. All of the charges grew out of either the Sept. 28, 1994 robbery in which Lee was killed, or the robbery of another Sacramento McDonald’s 17 days earlier.

Lots of Evidence

Vines was linked to the crimes through eyewitness testimony, his possession of stolen property, and testimony by friends that he told them he wanted to commit another robbery. The witnesses also said they had seen him with a handgun that may have been used to commit both crimes and may have been the weapon that Lee was shot with. The defense tried to cast doubt on the identifications.

On appeal, the defense argued that a potential juror—an African American, as is the defendant—was wrongly challenged on the basis of race. Long rejected the defense contention after the prosecutor explained that the challenge was based on the potential juror’s expressed antipathy toward the death penalty and other criticism of the criminal justice system.

The defense contended that the death penalty issue was a pretext, claiming that a white juror who also had reservations about the criminal justice system was seated. Werdegar disagreed, saying the two were not comparable.

The specific responses, she explained, showed that the white juror possessed far more ambivalence than the challenged venire member. The life experiences of the two, she added, were sufficiently dissimilar that the prosecutor could rationally conclude that one was less likely to convict than the other.

The justice explained:

“Juror No. 7 was 51 years old, had been in the military, had a spouse who was employed, and had raised a child to adulthood. He was a supervisor at his place of employment, with the power to hire and fire. [Challenged venire member] M.H. was 34 years old, with a spouse who was not employed and an infant child; he had no supervisory experience or responsibility....Juror No. 7’s daughter had worked in a fast-food restaurant (such as the scenes of the crimes here) and another relative had been the victim of a crime, which might have tended to make him more sympathetic to the prosecution in this case; M.H. had no relatives with fast-food experience and knew no one who had been victimized.”

The defense also challenged the trial judge’s exclusion of a statement by Vines’ alleged accomplice in the two robberies, William Proby, who told police that a third person, known as “Blackie,” was involved in the second robbery, supplying the gun and waiting in the getaway car.

That person, the defense claimed, may have been a man named Anthony Edwards, who was nicknamed “Black Black” and who closely matched a description of the shooter given by two of the eyewitnesses.

Prosecution Argument

The prosecution argued that if any part of Proby’s statement came in, it would be misleading not to admit the entirety of it, including the portion implicating the defendant. The prosecutor pointed out that there was surveillance video showing that the robbery was committed by two men, not three, and none of the eyewitnesses said that there were more than two robbers.

The trial judge agreed, and ruled that Proby’s statement could not be admitted in part, and also excluded evidence of Edwards’ history of violence. Proby invoked the Fifth Amendment and did not testify, and his statement was not introduced.

Werdegar agreed that the prosecution was entitled, under “the rule of completeness,” to insist that Proby’s statement be admitted either in its entirety or not at all, and that the statement as a whole did not exculpate the defendant.

“Defendant wanted to rely on a part of Proby’s statement to imply that Blackie was the shooter, which was contrary to what Proby actually said elsewhere in his statement,” the justice wrote wrote. “The rule of completeness exists to prevent such a misuse of evidence. The trial court therefore correctly concluded that Evidence Code section 356 permitted the prosecution to introduce other portions of Proby’s statement making that fact clear.”

On another issue, the court upheld the trial judge’s admission of a letter sent to a prosecution witness from jail by the defendant. The witness, Sean Gilbert, was a co-worker told police that he had seen Vines with the possible murder weapon, and with some of the stolen property, and that Vines had discussed the possibility of committing armed robbery.

Vines said in the letter that he was innocent, and that Gilbert’s statement to the police was false. Long ruled that the letter was admissible because it contained threats of violence that could be construed as showing consciousness of guilt.

The defense argued that because Vines was asserting innocence, the letter was not admissible. Werdegar, however, said the letter was properly placed into evidence because it represented an effort by the defendant to suppress unfavorable testimony.

As it has in past cases, the cour t rejected the argument that the time spent by the defendant on Death Row, and in particular the more than five years he waited for appointment of counsel, constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The case is People v. Vines, 11 S.O.S. 2584.


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