Tuesday, May 7, 2013
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Local Gang Leader
Divided Court Rejects Claim Black Women Were Wrongly Kicked Off Jury Panel
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the death sentence for a local man who grew up in affluence but left home for gang life and was convicted of killing two men who were supposed to sell him two kilos of cocaine.
The court, in a 5-2 decision, rejected claims of jury selection error, ineffective assistance of counsel, and evidentiary and instructional error raised by counsel for George Brett Williams. The dissenting justices argued that Williams should receive a new trial because the first five African-American women to be questioned as potential jurors were stricken by the prosecution, and that the claim they were challenged because of their reluctance to impose the death penalty did not hold up.
Witnesses, including his accomplices, testified that Williams bound and gagged Jack Barron and Willie Thomas and shot them to death.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Madge Watai, who has since retired, pronounced the death sentence after jurors found Williams guilty of two counts each of first degree murder—with special circumstances of multiple murder and robbery—and first degree robbery. Prosecutors said at the time of his conviction that it was an unusual case in that Williams, the adopted son of philanthropists Charles and Jessie Maye Williams, grew up in an affluent neighborhood—Athens Park—and attended private schools, although he dropped out at age 16 and reportedly began hanging out with gang members.
His background, prosecutors said, may have been one of the reasons he quickly ascended the ranks of the Rolling 60s, one of the city’s largest gangs.
According to the prosecution, Williams and his partners cut up pages from a telephone book and wrapped them in paper bags that they were going to pass off as bundles of cash. When Barron and Thomas demanded to count the cash before turning over the cocaine, they were led to a house on Spring Street where Williams and his partners threw them to the floor, bound their hands and feet with shoestrings and stuffed socks into their mouths.
Witnesses testified that Williams’ gun accidentally went off, striking one of the victims in the chest. Saying that he did not want any witnesses, Williams allegedly shot both men point blank in the head. Williams and his partners robbed the dead men and stole their car.
The accomplices—Patrick Linton, Dauras Cyprian, and Dino Lee—were all convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to up to life in prison. Linton, however, won a new trial based on a finding of juror misconduct and agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of second degree murder.
All three testified at Williams’ trial, although Linton and the prosecution insisted that his testimony was not a condition of the plea agreement, and both the trial judge and the high court rejected the argument that there was an implied promise of leniency in exchange for that testimony.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the high court yesterday, said the trial judge’s denial of a mistrial based on the jury selection was entitled to deference because the prosecution’s asserted race-neutral reasons for striking the five black women were not “inherently implausible”.
She was joined by Justices Marvin Baxter, Joyce L. Kennard, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan.
Justice Goodwin H. Liu dissented, arguing that a mistrial should have been declared on the basis of race and gender bias in the exercise of peremptory challenges under Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79. Liu wrote that as to at least two of the women, the trial judge’s findings of race neutrality were not entitled to deference because the judge acknowledged when she denied the motion that she could not recall the women’s demeanor when they said they could be fair and impartial on the issue of capital punishment.
“The trial judge accepted the prosecutor’s explanations despite the fact that she had ‘stopped taking notes’ by the time at least two of these prospective jurors were questioned and thus could ‘only go by what [the prosecutor] is saying,’” Liu explained. “In the course of ruling on one of defendant’s Batson claims, the trial judge said she had noticed in past cases that ‘black women are very reluctant to impose the death penalty; they find it very difficult no matter what it is.’”
The court, he said, was placing itself on the wrong side of a split of authority as to how much scrutiny appellate courts should give the denial of Batson motions in the absence of explicit analysis by the trial court as to why it considers a challenge to be race- or gender-neutral.
“Because the goal of extirpating such discrimination cannot be reconciled with deference to a trial court’s Batson ruling when there is no indication that the trial court conducted the inquiry necessary to support that ruling, and because the totality of circumstances here gives rise to a strong inference of unlawful discrimination, I respectfully dissent.”
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar dissented separately, also on Batson grounds, but said she would not go as far as Liu.
“…I find it unnecessary to suggest that in general no deference is owed a trial court’s credibility determination unless the court has made explicit findings upholding the prosecutor’s stated reasons for exercising a challenge in light of all the circumstances bearing on the question of discrimination,” she wrote. But she agreed that the factual circumstances, as explained by Liu, were sufficiently “egregious” to require reversal.
The chief justice, however, in her opinion for the court, said it was appropriate for the trial judge to rely on the recollections of the prosecutor to the extent the judge could not recall the demeanor of the stricken jurors.
The appeal was argued in the Supreme Court by Daniel N. Abrahamson for the defendant and Deputy Attorney General Stephanie A. Miyoshi for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Williams, 13 S.O.S. 2277.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company