Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 13, 2013


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California Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence, Rejects Challenge to Felony-Murder Rule




The death sentence may be imposed in a case where the sole special circumstance is that the defendant killed his victim during the course of a robbery, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for a unanimous court, rejected all contentions of error raised by George Lopez Contreras, sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of Saleh Ben Hassan in the market that Hassan and his wife owned near Visalia. Among those was an argument that imposition of a death sentence based on the robbery-murder special circumstance violates the Eighth Amendment because it may result in the execution of someone who had no intent to kill.

Hassan was found shot to death, with two blasts from a shotgun, in late December 1995. His wallet and handgun were missing.

Police and prosecutors put a case together against Contreras, based in large part on the testimony of Artero Vallejo Jr. Vallejo was a friend of Contreras and of Santos Pasillas, who was also implicated in the crime, and claimed that within hours of the killings, the men admitted to him that they had committed the robbery and that someone had been killed.

They also called Jose “Lupe” Valencia, who said he went to the market with Contreras and Passilas and was waiting outside when he heard a gunshot. Contreras, he said, later showed him the gun that had been taken from the storekeeper and admitted being the shooter.

The defense attacked the witnesses’ credibility and claimed that Contreras was with his girlfriend, then Claudia Gutierrez—she and the defendant married before the trial—and her sister and Contreras’ infant son close to the time of the murder. They picked up the sister from the Visalia accounting firm where she worked, Gutierrez and her sister testified.

In addition, Patricia Murillo—another sister of Gutierrez—and her husband testified they were at the same office building, applying for a loan, and saw Contreras and Gutierrez in the parking lot.

Prosecutors presented a rebuttal witness, Elisabeth Hernandez, the maternal aunt of Contreras’ child. She testified that Contreras’ son could not have been with him the day of the murder because he was living with his mother, the aunt, and their mother at the time, and Contreras wasn’t spending any time at all with the child in that period.

Jurors found Contreras guilty of first degree murder with the robbery special circumstance, and found that he personally used a firearm in the commission of the crime. In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that he had committed an armed assault, firing several shots, at the mother of his children four months before the murder.

The defense sought to portray Contreras as a dedicated husband and father whose execution would devastate his wife. One of the witnesses was Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman, who said he had known the Contreras family for about 10 years before the murder and that the defendant was a “good kid.”

Jurors, however, returned a death penalty verdict, and Tulare Superior Court Judge Patrick O’Hara pronounced the death sentence.

Baxter, writing for the high court, said the fact that a defendant may have committed the underlying felony without intent to kill, or even without “reckless indifference to human life,” does not necessarily mean that capital punishment is disproportionate to his personal culpability.

He distinguished Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008) 554 U.S. 407, in which the high court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibited imposition of the death penalty upon an adult male defendant for the violent rape of a child, in a case where death neither resulted nor was intended.

“Contrary to what defendant claims, nothing in Kennedy… undermines any decision of the United States Supreme Court or this court concerning the circumstances under which a death sentence is allowed for felony murderers who actually kill their victims,” the justice wrote. “We discern no change in the law supporting our conclusion that an actual killer need not, in defendant’s words, have ‘a culpable state of mind with regard to the murder.’”

The evidence against Contreras, he noted, established that the defendant obtained a shotgun the night before the murder, planned a robbery in which his accomplices carried two other guns, shot the defendant twice—including once in the back of the neck—and stole his wallet and gun.

The case is People v. Contreras, 13 S.O.S. 6290.


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