Tuesday, May 8, 2012
State Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Riverside Man Who Killed Neighbor
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence for a Riverside County man convicted of raping and killing his elderly next-door neighbor, then setting her house afire.
William Alfred Jones, a convicted sex offender who was 39 years old when he killed Ruth Eddings, 81, in 1996, failed to demonstrate prejudicial error at his 1996 trial before then-Riverside Superior Court Judge Robert Spitzer, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said.
Sheriff’s deputies who investigated the crimes focused on Jones from the beginning of their investigation. Interrogated at home the morning and afternoon of the crime—which occurred during early morning hours—and later at the police station, he admitted responsibility for the sexual assault, the death, and the fire.
Prosecutors charged Jones with first degree murder—with special circumstances of rape, sodomy, and burglary—as well as arson. They argued that Jones entered the Eddings residence with intent to assault the victim sexually, raped and sodomized her, then strangled her and tried to burn down her mobilehome in order to destroy the evidence.
The defense contended that Jones went over to the house to check in on Eddings, who had not taken in her newspaper, but was heavily intoxicated at the time and accidentally fell on her. Any sexual contact, the defense argued, was not intended at the time of entry and occurred postmortem.
Jones admitted starting the fire, saying he panicked because he didn’t want to go back to prison, from which he had recently been paroled.
Jurors found Jones guilty of murder with special circumstances and of arson, and returned a death penalty verdict.
On appeal, the defense argued that Spitzer erred in allowing a forensic pathologist who had conducted the autopsy to opine that the sexual assault occurred while Eddings was still alive. Not being a psychologist or other specialist in necrophilia, or a criminologist, the pathologist was not qualified to render an opinion on the issue, defense counsel claimed.
The standard of review regarding the court’s determination to allow a witness to testify as an expert, the chief justice noted, is manifest abuse of discretion. A pathologist’s opinion regarding how a fatal injury did or did not occur is generally regarded as within his or her area of expertise, she added.
“The question of whether a victim was raped and sodomized prior to or after dying is a relevant circumstance of death for which a qualified forensic pathologist might offer an opinion in an appropriate case,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. She also noted that a defense expert, who testified that the sexual assault occurred postmortem, also lacked the credentials the defense argued were required.
The chief justice also rejected defense arguments concerning the admission of evidence of prior criminal assaults by Jones and the related jury instructions.
At the guilt phase, Spitzer allowed a woman, identified as Toni P., to testify that when she was 16 years old and living with her aunt, who was Jones’ sister, Jones came over and had forced oral sex with her after her aunt and uncle had left for work. He told her that she would “regret it” if she told anyone.
Jones was subsequently convicted in that case, and was paroled 18 months before he killed Eddings.
The judge admitted the evidence as bearing on Jones’ state of mind and intent in going to Eddings’ home on the occasion of the killing. Spitzer also allowed prosecutors to impeach Jones’ direct testimony with evidence that he had stabbed a teacher in high school with a knife, and sexually assaulted the mother of his then-girlfriend three years after the incident with the teacher.
Evidence of several attacks on women he dated were admitted in the penalty phase.
Cantil-Sakauye said the evidence regarding Toni P. was admissible to show a predisposition to commit a sexual assault against Eddings, and that the evidence was sufficiently probative to outweigh any prejudice.
The chief justice acknowledged that the jury instructions regarding the other-crimes evidence “were not entirely consistent” with the judge’s rulings limiting the purposes for which the evidence could be considered. But there was no cause for reversal, she said, because the standard instruction that was given, CALJIC No. 2.50, correctly stated the law; the evidence was clearly admissible; the evidence of intent was strong; and the arguments of counsel made clear what the purpose of admitting the evidence was.
The case is People v. Jones. 12 S.O.S. 2163.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company