Tuesday, July 1, 2014
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence, Says Comments by Talk Show Hosts’ Did Not Affect Murder Trial
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Exhortations by a pair of talk show hosts for jurors to condemn the accused killer of an Orange County girl did not deprive the defendant of his right to a fair trial, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for a unanimous court, acknowledged the justices’ “concern” over the fact that the hosts of the John and Ken Show on Los Angeles radio station KFI had urged the death penalty for Alejandro Avila before a jury had been selected. The pair even went so far as to say it would be “great” if a “John and Ken stealth juror” got on the panel trying the accused killer of Samantha Runnion, Chin noted.
But there was no reversible error, the justice explained, because the voir dire presided over by Orange Superior Court Judge William Freberg resulted in a jury that was clearly not influenced by the program or by other pretrial publicity, which Chin said had largely dissipated by the time of the trial. The record as a whole, Chin added, showed that Avila received a fair trial, and that jurors’ feelings about him were formed by the evidence, not by anything they heard outside the courtroom.
The 5-year-old victim was grabbed by a man, later identified as Avila, while playing outside her Stanton home. Her body was found the next day along a highway in Riverside County; the autopsy showed she was strangled and sexually assaulted. Samantha’s playmate gave police a description of the man, and a police artist’s sketch shown on television produced a witness who said the man looked like Avila.
DNA evidence appeared to place the victim inside Avila’s car, and scrapings from the victim’s fingernails revealed DNA belonging to the defendant. Other evidence was presented tying Avila to the molestations of three other children, and showing his interest in child pornography.
Although the defense argued reasonable doubt, jurors found the defendant guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances of kidnapping and child molestation.
In concluding that pretrial publicity did not create a presumption of prejudice, regardless of a survey prepared by a defense expert, Chin distinguished U.S. Supreme Court cases on the issue. The justice noted that the publicity in those cases was far more pervasive than in Avila’s.
“Trial was held two years and nine months after the crime and the initial outpouring of publicity. Other highly publicized cases had taken ‘center stage.’ The public opinion surveys suggested that within a few months of the trial the case still remained in the public consciousness. But it was reasonable for the trial court to conclude that actual voir dire — during which the court and parties could question the jurors face to face — was a more reliable way to measure the effect of pretrial publicity than a survey conducted by a person chosen by one of the parties.”
In the other death penalty case, justices unanimously affirmed the death sentence of Christopher James Sattiewhite for the 1992 Oxnard murder of Genoveva Gonzales, with special circumstances of rape and kidnapping. The court rejected Sattiewhite’s claim that an African-American venire member was improperly removed before the jury was empaneled to try the case.
The court agreed with the trial judge that the defense failed to present a prima facie case of bias.
The cases are People v. Avila, 14 S.O.S. 3291, and People v. Sattiewhite, 14 S.O.S. 3300.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company