Friday, May 24, 2013
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Murder of Woman Abducted From Bakersfield Mall in 1993
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence of a man who confessed to abducting a 19-year-old woman from a Bakersfield shopping mall and robbing her.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the court, rejected claims that the trial of Charles F. Rountree should have been moved out of Kern County due to prejudicial pretrial publicity.
Rountree and Mary Stroder were arrested in Kansas days after Diana Contreras was taken from the mall and killed. Her body was found by oil workers near Taft—she had been shot three times—and Rountree was driving her car when police spotted and stopped it.
Police had been tracking the pair through ATM transaction and cell phone records.
Rountree confessed that he and Stroder had forced Contreras to remove money from an ATM machine and had driven off with her in her car. Rountree claimed that her death was an accident, however.
He said he had taken her to an isolated area and told her to get out, so that he could get away. He claimed that she didn’t want to be left alone in that vicinity, and asked him to drive her back into town.
He told police that he got out of the car to get her to leave, and was carrying his rifle, which he said discharged accidentally, hitting her. Because she was screaming in pain, he said, he shot her again, but thought he had missed and fired again.
Rountree and Stroder were tried together in Kern Superior Court after their motions for change of venue were denied. Defense lawyers claimed that a string of news coverage of their arrest and of a pair of anti-crime marches in which relatives of Contreras participated prevented the defendants from getting a fair trial.
In support of that argument, they presented survey evidence purporting to show that most of the potential jurors thought they were guilty and deserved the death sentence.
Judge Lee Phillip Felice denied the motion, without prejudice to the right to renew it during jury selection. The judge later denied the renewed motion, saying:
“There isn’t a juror remaining who indicates they could not set aside whatever it was that he read or heard, whatever opinions they may have formed. I think they will judge this case solely, exclusively, on the evidence presented to them in this courtroom.”
Felice also denied motions for severance by both defendants.
Stroder’s counsel argued that her confrontation rights would be violated by the admission of Rountree’s confession, but prosecutors offered to present—through the testimony of the interviewing detective—a redacted version of the statement that did not mention Stroder. Rountree’s counsel objected that admission of the redacted version would present an inaccurate picture of what actually happened by making it appear that Stroder, whose shoe prints were found next to the body, had little to do with the murder.
The judge accepted the proposed redaction and denied both motions. The joint trial went forward, with jurors finding both defendants guilty of first degree murder with felony-murder special circumstances, and returning a death penalty verdict as to Rountree but not as to Stroder.
Felice denied the automatic motion to modify the verdict, ruling that sentencing Rountree to death was not disproportionate to his individual culpability. Stroder was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Chin, writing for the high court, said the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the change of venue.
The survey results offered by the defendant were of little value, the justice said, because respondents were not asked if they “could set aside their opinion and decide the case based on evidence presented in court,” and those who said they would vote for the maximum punishment “were not asked whether this opinion was based on information about this case or the belief that death is the appropriate penalty for any murder.”
Nor, Chin said, was there any reason to believe that the pretrial publicity affected the 12 jurors who ultimately decided the case. The news reports were balanced and not inflammatory, the justice said, while the marches cited by the defendant were not well-attended and did not include “any inflammatory call for vengeance against these particular defendants.”
Chin also rejected Rountree’s claim that the denial of his severance motion deprived him of a fair trial, saying the unredacted version of his confession did not show him in any better light than the redacted version the jury heard.
The case is People v. Rountree, 13 S.O.S. 2623.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company