Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for ‘Ninja’ Killer
Justices Reject Claim That California Law Barred Successive Federal, State Prosecutions
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the conviction and death sentence of a onetime probationary police officer for the 1985 murders-for-hire of a San Fernando Valley couple.
In a 6-1 decision, the court rejected Steven Homick’s claim that he could not be prosecuted in California for the killings of Gerald and Vera Woodman because he was previously convicted in federal court of interstate murder for hire, and also because the Woodman murders were predicate acts to a federal racketeering conviction.
Homick lived in Las Vegas, where—in part—the Woodman murders were allegedly planned out over a period of nearly two years. After the Woodman murders occurred, but before he was charged with them, he was charged with killing three people in his home city, one of them a wealthy woman who had some jewelry cleaned at a store where Homick worked security.
He was ultimately convicted of those murders and also sentenced to death.
Homick is the only one of six defendants convicted of the so-called “Ninja” murders to be sentenced to death. The moniker was attached to the Woodman killings by a reporter because a witness said a suspect he saw running from the scene appeared to be wearing a martial arts outfit, which turned out to be a black sweatshirt with a hood. The Woodmans were shot in an ambush as they returned home from a family dinner marking the end of the fast on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.
Police and prosecutors concluded that Homick was hired by Neil and Stewart Woodman to kill their parents, with whom they had feuded over business matters. The brothers had taken control of the family’s manufacturing company, Manchester Products, and forced their parents and younger brother—who had started a competing business—into bankruptcy, while also running into severe problems themselves.
Prosecutors said the murders were motivated by pure hatred of their father, as well as the brothers’ hopes of cashing in on a $500,000 insurance policy on their mother’s life in order to keep Manchester afloat.
After multiple state and federal trials, the Woodman brothers drew life sentences, as did Homick’s brother, attorney Robert Homick—who resigned from the State Bar after being convicted—and Anthony Majoy of Reseda and Michael Dominguez of Las Vegas. Neil Woodman was the last defendant to be sentenced—in 1996—and proclaimed his innocence, claiming his brother had lied.
Stewart Woodman agreed to testify against his brother and the others in order to avoid the death penalty, after his own trial ended in his being found guilty of first degree murder.
On appeal, Homick claimed the prosecution in Los Angeles Superior Court violated Penal Code Sec. 656.
The state prosecution was not barred by the double jeopardy clauses of the state and federal constitutions, which have been held inapplicable to prosecutions by state and federal governments, or by two different states, for the same crime. But Sec. 656, as it read in 1985, provided that “[w]henever on the trial of an accused person it appears that upon a criminal prosecution under the laws of another State, Government, or country, founded upon the act or omission in respect to which he is on trial, he has been acquitted or convicted, it is a sufficient defense.”
Judge Florence Marie-Cooper, since deceased, ruled that the statute did not apply because the state and federal charges were not identical. In particular, the judge noted, the lying-in-wait special circumstance charged in the state case was not an element of the federal charge.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the court, said Homick’s state prosecution was not barred because it was not “founded upon the act or omission” charged in the federal case.
“Where California charges the defendant with conduct that makes him or her eligible for the state’s most severe punishments, death and life in prison without the possibility of parole, and that particular conduct has not been the subject of a prior federal or sister-state prosecution, the state’s interest in a separate prosecution is particularly strong, while the protective purposes of section 656 are not implicated. California’s prosecution of defendant for murder by means of lying in wait was not unfair to him, as he had not previously been prosecuted for that conduct, nor did it impugn the finality of a prior judgment, as the federal court verdict did not adjudicate the lying-in-wait issue. The state, moreover, has a substantial interest in enforcing its laws differentiating between noncapital murders and murders that are so heinous as to merit either of our law’s greatest punishments, an interest the prior federal prosecution could not and did not serve. Neither the federal Constitution nor section 656 restricts California, as a sovereign government separate from that of the United States, from pursuing its own interest in punishing murder where the acts comprising the special circumstance have not previously been the subject of a federal prosecution.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye joined in the opinion, as did Justices Ming Chin, Marvin Baxter, Carol Corrigan and Goodwin Liu.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard argued in dissent that the substantial elements of Homick’s state and federal crimes were the same, and that because the lying-in-wait special circumstance relates to penalty and not to guilt, the state case should have been dismissed under Sec. 656.
Attorneys on appeal were Mark E. Cutler, by appointment, for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General Victoria B. Wilson for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Homick, 12 S.O.S. 6111.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company