Friday, July 1, 2011
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Murder at Gardena Doughnut Shop
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the conviction and death sentence imposed for the robbery/murder of a 22-year-old woman at her family’s Gardena doughnut shop.
The justices unanimously rejected arguments raised by attorneys for Lester Wayne Virgil, sentenced to death for the Oct. 24, 1992, slaying of Soy Sung Lao. Among the defense contentions was that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Steven Suzukawa, who conducted the 1995 trial and sentencing, gave prosecutors excessive latitude in their presentation of victim impact evidence.
Lao, a USC senior who came to the United States with some of her brothers and sisters after their parents died in Communist-controlled Cambodia, was stabbed 30 times at Donut King. Jurors convicted Virgil not only of that crime, but also of the robbery of a nearby grocery store 11 days earlier and of robbing a mechanic at an area bowling alley a week after the murder.
The prosecution told jurors that Lao had escaped the “killing fields” of Cambodia only to be murdered “in the killing fields of Gardena.” Both the trial judge and the Supreme Court said that was within the bounds of permissible argument.
Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court, said it was also proper to allow a woman who survived a vicious knife attack and robbery committed by Virgil on another occasion to testify as to the impact of that crime. A number of courts, she noted, have held that victim impact testimony in the penalty phase of a capital crime may be given by survivors of other violent crimes committed by the defendant, as well as by members of the murder victim’s family.
The 22-year-old Lao—who had immigrated to the United States with some of her brothers and sisters from Cambodia to escape communism and was set to graduate from USC the following May—was stabbed 30 times at Donut King. The justices rejected Virgil’s claim that his conviction, and the robbery special circumstance, were not proven by substantial evidence.
Even if jurors found Virgil to be the killer, the defense argued, they could not find that he committed robbery because Lao was stabbed before any money was taken from the cash register.
“Substantial direct and circumstantial evidence established both that defendant was the person who murdered Lao and that he did so during the course of a robbery or attempted robbery,” Corrigan wrote.
She cited testimony by a Los Angeles County Park Police sergeant who had stopped into the shop for coffee and seen Virgil shortly before the murder, and by two other customers who said they saw him emerge from the back of the store closely followed by Lao, who was screaming and bleeding massively prior to collapsing.
The pair also said they saw him take money from the cash register afterwards. And a woman who was in the shop earlier said he attempted to conceal his face, supporting an inference that he intended to rob the store once it was devoid of customers, Corrigan said.
Jurors could also infer Virgil’s intent to rob based on the testimony about the other robberies he committed, the justice added.
Corrigan also rejected the contention that the jury was tainted when a jail employee who was an alternate juror saw Virgil in custody. No mention of his custodial status had been made at the trial, and the defense had expressed concerns that the woman might see him in jail when she was selected for the panel.
At the time, Suzukawa said he saw no reason to excuse her for cause, since she would be sitting on the jury and would not be at the jail during the trial. But the woman went to work during a break in the trial and saw Virgil at that time.
There was no violation of the right to a fair trial, however, because the alternate juror reported the incident to the court, and assured the judge that she would not be biased as a result of it and that she would not discuss her sighting of the defendant with fellow jurors, Corrigan said.
Virgil was represented in the Supreme Court by court-appointed attorney Manuel J. Baglanis of San Jose. Deputy Attorney General Michael Keller of Los Angeles argued for the state.
The high court also ruled in one other death penalty case yesterday, affirming the conviction and sentence imposed by a San Bernardino Superior Court judge on Gabriel Castaneda for murdering an employee of a Montclair medical clinic, where he had previously been treated for injuries received in a minor auto accident. Castaneda was also convicted of burglary, sodomy, robbery, and kidnapping in connection with the 1998 event, in which the victim was stabbed 29 times.
The defense argued on appeal that Judge Mary E. Fuller erred in excluding proposed psychiatric testimony that Castaneda suffered from depression. The proposed witness proffered that the defendant suffered from “Gang Member Depression,” the symptoms of which, he said, are different than those found in the standard diagnostic manual and are thus easily missed by most mental health professionals.
The judge was correct in ruling that no foundation had been laid for the testimony, and did not deprive the defendant of his right to present mitigating evidence by excluding it, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court.
The cases are People v. Virgil, 11 S.O.S. 3522, and People v. Castaneda, 11 S.O.S. 3548.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company