Friday, June 8, 2012
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Man Who Burned Woman to Death
Justices Reject Claim That Tape of Victim Screaming Was Unduly Prejudicial
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a man who killed his son’s mother by setting her afire in a Fontana pizza parlor parking lot.
The justices rejected claims by Howard Larcell Streeter that the trial judge abused his discretion by admitting evidence that may have had a significant emotional impact on the jury, including a tape of the victim screaming in pain for 20 minutes on her way to the hospital where she died.
San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Bob Krug sentenced Streeter to death in 1999 for the 1997 murder of Yolanda Buttler, 39. Witnesses testified that Streeter sat in the parking lot waiting for Butler, who was bringing their son to visit with him in the pizza parlor; her two older children were with her as well.
The two had recently ended a five-year relationship, which members of Buttler’s family said was violent. Buttler had recently obtained a restraining order against Streeter, who had been unsuccessfully seeking reconciliation.
After Buttler emerged from her car, witnesses said, Streeter poured gasoline over her from a can and dragged her back toward his car, from which he obtained a lighter and set the victim ablaze. Bystanders doused the fire with water and blankets, but the burns were so severe that paramedics could not locate a vein to administer pain medication.
Died in Hospital
Buttler succumbed to her wounds after 10 days in the hospital. Streeter, who was pursued by a bystander as he tried to leave the scene and was eventually arrested, was charged with first degree murder with special circumstances of lying in wait and torture.
Streeter admitted killed Butler. But ihe denied that he planned the murder, saying he acted because he was distraught over the breakup and losing the opportunity to be with his son, and was under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
A jury found him guilty and found both special-circumstance allegations to be true, but deadlocked as to penalty. A new jury was empaneled and voted to impose the death penalty.
On appeal, the defense argued that Krug should not have allowed the jury to hear the 20-minute tape. Given its offer to stipulate to the cause and manner of death, the defense contended, the admission of the tape was more prejudicial than probative.
Justice Ming Chin, however, wrote for the high court that the tape was highly probative of whether Streeter intentionally caused the victim extreme pain, an element of the torture special circumstance to which the defense did not stipulate.
“In any event, the prosecution may not be compelled to accept a stipulation where the effect would be to deprive the state’s case of its persuasiveness and forcefulness,” Chin wrote, concluding that the evidence was no more sensational than was necessary to demonstrate what had occurred.
Chin went on to say that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Buttler’s murder arose from a premeditated plan to cause her extreme pain and not from an “an unplanned, impulsive explosion of violence resulting from a fight that spun out of control” as the defense contended.
“Given defendant’s prior physical abuse of Yolanda, his attempts to control her by preventing communication with her family, his anger with Yolanda for leaving him and taking his child, and concealing her whereabouts, and the repeated threats against Yolanda’s family, the jury could have reasonably concluded that when defendant intentionally set Yolanda on fire as he had planned, he intended to cause Yolanda extreme pain and suffering as punishment or for revenge,” Chin wrote.
Jurors could also consider the fact that he fled the scene, rather than attempting to help put the flames out, conduct more consistent with murderous intent than sudden rage, Chin said.
The justice agreed with the defense that Krug committed error when he instructed the jury that it could consider the defendant’s prior misdemeanor conviction for shooting into an occupied dwelling as an aggravating factor under Penal Code Sec. 190.3(c). But the error was certainly harmless, he said.
While Sec. 190.3(c) only applies to felony convictions, the jury was entitled to consider the underlying violent criminal conduct as an aggravating factor under Sec. 190.3(b), Chin explained. “The danger that the jury would assign significant additional aggravating weight to the fact of conviction was minimal,” the jurist said.
The case is People v. Streeter, 12 S.O.S. 2772.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company