Tuesday, December 3, 2013
S.C. Rejects Juror Misconduct Claims, Upholds Death Sentence
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of two Monterey County murders.
The justices unanimously agreed that Joseph Kekoa Manibusan failed to show error with respect to the jury verdict finding him guilty of the 1998 killings of Priya Matthews and Francis Olivo, or to the death sentence imposed for those crimes. The court also upheld, by a vote of 5-2, Manibusan’s conviction for aggravated mayhem as to a third victim, who survived despite being shot twice at close range.
The defense’s key argument on appeal was that it had presented sufficient evidence of “serious and ongoing” juror misconduct to require a new trial. But the high court held that the evidence was largely hearsay, and that the alleged misconduct wasn’t so pervasive that the denial of a new trial constituted an abuse of discretion by now-retired Monterey Superior Court Judge Jonathan Price.
Prosecutors charged Manibusan and Norman Willover with first degree murder in the death of Matthews and with aggravated mayhem, attempted murder and attempted robbery in the shooting of Jennifer Aninger. The victims were students at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and were shot to death late night at a municipal wharf.
According to testimony, primarily from friends of the defendants, Manibusan and Willover were driving around specifically looking for victims to rob. Manibusan was driving, and Willover shot the two women after they did not respond to his demand for money.
Street Corner Killing
Olivo, a mother of six, was gunned down hours later on a Seaside street corner. Prosecutors said her murder was a thrill killing, and that Manibusan did not speak to her he motioned her toward his car and shot her three times.
Willover, who was 17 when the crimes were committed and thus not subject to the death penalty, was tried twice and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. In the case of Manibusan, 19 when he committed the crimes, jurors delivered true findings as to special circumstances of multiple murder, drive-by murder, and robbery-murder, and returned a death penalty verdict.
The defense, which presented no evidence in the guilt phase, sought a life-without-parole-sentence based primarily on evidence the defendant suffered an abusive childhood. Price denied the automatic motion for modification and the new-trial motion and imposed the death sentence in 2001.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court, said there were no irregularities requiring reversal of the conviction or the sentence.
The defense argued that the verdict was tainted by a series of events, beginning when “Juror 58,” as she was identified in the opinion, informed the judge she had recognized an observer who had come into the courtroom and later learned she was a friend of Manibusan’s mother.
The juror said she and her husband were concerned for their family’s safety because her identity had been revealed to the defendant’s family. The letter asked that she be removed, but the woman later assured Price she could remain unbiased and wanted to stay on the jury, but she asked to be removed as foreperson so her signature would not be on the verdict forms.
At least one juror later confirmed that Juror 58 discussed her safety concerns in deliberations the day the panel rendered its guilty verdict, according to the juror’s declaration. Juror 58 supposedly told her best friend, according to a declaration by someone who claimed to have spoken to the friend, that she had talked about Manibusan, possibly during his trial, with a sheriff’s deputy who had heard the defendant confess.
Other jurors said in declarations that penalty deliberations included discussions regarding the fact Manibusan did not testify and descriptions by one juror, a prison counselor, of the living conditions of inmates sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
None of this requires a new trial, Chin said.
“Hearsay evidence offered in support of a new trial motion that is based on alleged jury misconduct ordinarily is insufficient to establish an abuse of discretion in either denying the motion or declining to conduct an evidentiary hearing,” Chin wrote. “…Defendant offers no persuasive basis for deviating from this general rule.”
There were additional reasons to deny the motion, the justice said. None of the defendant’s evidence showed that Juror 58 did not act impartially once she was removed from the foreperson’s role, he reasoned, nor was there evidence that the other supposed misconduct involved anything more than passing comment, which could not have influenced the verdict.
Chin also rejected the argument that the conviction for aggravated mayhem, based on having aided and abetted Willover in the Aninger shooting, was unsupported by substantial evidence.
The crime, a violation of Penal Code § 205, is committed when one “intentionally causes permanent disability or disfigurement of another human being or deprives a human being of a limb, organ, or member of his or her body.”
While the defense contended that Willover shot Aninger without the intent to injure any specific body part, there was evidence from which jurors could infer otherwise, Chin said.
The jurist wrote:
“Willover shot Aninger from very close range — only five to 10 feet — hitting her once in the face — her forehead — and once in the upper arm, near her face. This evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, reasonably supports the inference that Willover did not, as defendant asserts, fire indiscriminately, but focused his attack on Aninger’s head, which is a particularly vulnerable part of the body. In prior decisions, we have held that the fact the victim was shot in the head can support an inference of an intent to kill….We now find that the same fact can support an inference of an intent to cause permanent disability or disfigurement.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Marvin Baxter, Joyce L. Kennard, and Carol Corrigan joined in the opinion.
Justice Kathryn M. Wedegar dissented solely with regard to the aggravated mayhem conviction. “Although I agree Aninger’s injuries are sufficient to qualify as permanently disabling or disfiguring, that such maiming injuries resulted from the attack is not itself sufficient evidence to prove that Willover (and hence, defendant) specifically intended to inflict injuries of that type,” she argued.
Justice Goodwin H. Liu joined Werdegar’s opinion, and also authored a concurrence arguing that the trial judge erred in rejecting a Wheeler/Batson challenge without explaining his reasons.
The juror in question was a black woman, and the prosecutor said he struck her because she opposed the death penalty and said she had previously served on a hung jury. The defense responded that the jury on which the woman previously served did not deadlock, but was dismissed after several other jurors became ill.
“To conclude that deference is unwarranted is not to conclude that the trial court’s ruling was wrong or that the trial court did not actually evaluate the reasons given for a strike. It is to conclude that an appellate court, when faced with an unexplained ruling, does not know what went into the trial court’s judgment and thus has nothing to which it can defer….Filling the gap with presumptions, as the court routinely does, falls short of the careful inquiry required by [U.S.] high court precedent.”
The justice concluded, however, that the record supported a finding that the woman was stricken for plausible, race-neutral reasons.
The case is People v. Manibusan, 13 S.O.S. 6083.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company