Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Panel Says Unlawfully Obtained Confession Tainted Later Testimony
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday said a man convicted of killing his estranged wife and her friend, an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, is entitled to have those convictions set aside.
Reuben Kenneth Lujan wasn’t fully advised of his legal rights before he confessed to the 1998 killings, the panel said in an opinion by U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo of the Southern District of California, sitting by designation.
Lujan had been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for killing his estranged wife, Monica Lujan, 26, and her friend, Sheriff’s Deputy Gilbert Madrigal, 45, by smashing their heads with a concrete block. The ruling requires that Lujan be retried or released, unless state courts determine that the conviction may be reduced to one of a lesser crime.
Plan to Divorce
According to testimony, Monica Lujan was killed four months after separating from her husband, and a month after she told him she intended to divorce. She later told police that her husband was following her, and making repeated unannounced visits to her residence, and he was arrested for making terrorist threats and stalking. One week before the killings, at approximately two o’clock in the morning, he allegedly returned to her residence and chased her inside.
After his arrest for the killings, Reuben Lujan met with detectives at the Norwalk sheriff’s station. During the first interview, a detective told him he had the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer appointed free of charge.
There were two more interviews. Lujan asked for a lawyer during the third interview, later during which he confessed.
During that interview, which was audiotaped, the following exchange occurred:
“Lujan: Can I have an attorney present?
Detective:…You feel you need one?
Lujan: Yes I do.
Detective: Okay. All right. If that’s what you want to do, we’ll do that.
Lujan: Can I get one in here today?
Detective: I really doubt it. I mean, I’m going to be honest with you. It’s Sunday evening. When you go to court in a couple of days there will be one appointed for you. That’s the way the system is set up. If you have funds and you want to call and hire your own attorney. If you want to call and hire an attorney, that’s fine. . . . If you want to make a statement without an attorney, that’s up to you. I doubt that if you hire an attorney they’ll let you make a statement, they usually don’t. That’s the way it goes…. Now, if you do want to talk to me without an attorney, that’s your choice.”
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge found that Lujan had received “incomplete” warnings, but denied his motion to suppress, and he was convicted at trial. The Court of Appeal said the confession should have been suppressed, but that the error was harmless because the defendant’s trial testimony was essentially consistent with the confession.
But U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow of the Central District of California, adopting the findings of a magistrate judge, said Lujan’s trial testimony was a product of the illegally obtained confession and thus could not erase the taint.
Morrow also concluded that there was sufficient evidence, exclusive of both the confession and the trial testimony, to convict Lujan of second degree murder, and said the state could elect to have the conviction reduced to that degree in lieu of a new trial.
Clearly Established Law
Bencivengo, in her opinion for the Ninth Circuit, said the defendant met his burden under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of showing that the admission of his confession violated clearly established federal law, specifically Harrison v. United States, 392 U.S. 219 (1968). The high court held in that case that testimony given at a prior trial was inadmissible on retrial, because that testimony would not have been given if the trial court had not erred in admitting an unlawfully obtained confession.
The testimony, the court said, was “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
“Harrison created a clear exclusionary rule that, when applicable, precludes the use of a defendant’s inculpatory trial testimony to incriminate him in later proceedings.”
The judge went on, however, to say it was error for the district court to make the determination that a reduction of the conviction to one of second degree murder would be an acceptable remedy. That issue should be left to the state courts, Bencivengo said.
The opinion was joined by Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima and Judge Jay Bybee.
The case, Lujan v. Garcia, 10-55637, was argued on appeal by Deputy Attorney General Keith Borjon for the prosecution and La Crescenta sole practitioner Tracy J. Dressner for the defendant.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company