Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence of Man Who Asked for It
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a Tulare County man who told jurors that was what he wanted.
Steven Allen Brown made a conscious, informed decision not to fight the death sentence, based on his preference for death over life imprisonment without possibility of parole, Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for a unanimous court. Having explained to Brown’ his options and detailed what the case in mitigation would consist of, defense counsel was not constitutionally ineffective in carrying out his client’s wishes, the justice said.
Brown and Charles Keith Richardson were convicted, at separate trials, of first degree murder with special circumstances of murder during the commission of sodomy and child molestation. The prosecution’s evidence showed that April Holley, age 11, was sexually assaulted and drowned before her body was found in the bathtub of her family’s residence in Matheny Tract on the outskirts of Tulare.
Brown denied his involvement at trial, but witnesses, including his girlfriend, testified to statements he had made implicating himself in the 1988 crime. Richardson’s conviction and death sentence were affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2008.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors presented evidence that Brown had committed five other violent crimes—an unprovoked attack on another man with a baseball bat, two sexual assaults, and two purse snatchings in which victims were knocked or pushed to the ground.
Before the penalty phase, however, defense counsel explained to the judge that Brown did not want to fight the death penalty, and wanted to testify to the jury that he preferred the death sentence to life-without-parole, the only alternative available under the law.
The attorney explained that he had investigated the defendant’s background, and that there was potential mitigating evidence regarding abuse and neglect the defendant had suffered as a child. He said he had discussed all of those things with Brown, and that Brown understood them, but that he did not “want to put his family through the ordeal of testifying here.”
In fact, counsel said, what Brown wanted to do was to testify in favor of his own execution, and then be excused from coming to court for the remainder of the penalty phase.
Tulare Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Kalashian then questioned Brown extensively, concluded that he understood what he was doing, and granted his requests. The jury returned a death penalty verdict, and the judge sentenced Brown accordingly.
Brown’s appellate counsel argued that trial counsel was deficient in allowing his client to dictate a non-defense in the penalty phase. Corrigan, writing for the high court, disagreed.
The justice distinguished People v. Deere (1985) 41 Cal.3d 353, which held the defendant’s trial counsel ineffective for allowing the defendant to plead guilty and to tell the jury in the penalty phase that he wanted the death sentence.
“[T]he continued precedential value of [Deere] has been sharply and repeatedly circumscribed,” Corrigan noted. Later cases, she explained, have held that a defendant may forego a case in mitigation, and may ask for the death sentence, as long as counsel has investigated the potential evidence in mitigation, and explained it to the defendant.
“After having been advised by counsel, if a competent defendant decides for nontactical reasons to present no mitigating evidence, he cannot later label counsel ineffective for honoring defendant’s own wishes,” the justice said.
The high court also rejected a defense contention that the testimony of the defendant’s girlfriend, Rhonda Schaub, should not have been admitted.
Schaub said that Brown confessed to the murder not long after it occurred. The defense argued that the testimony was inherently unreliable because Schaub admitted giving half a dozen subsequent statements to police and defense investigators without mentioning the confession, and because she was an admitted drug user.
Corrigan noted that Schaub was questioned, and her veracity argued, extensively, and said that since the testimony “did not reveal demonstrable falsity or physical impossibility,” it was up to the jury to decide whether to believe her.
Also yesterday, the high court, in a 4-3 decision, overturned the ruling of this district’s Court of Appeal in the case of a diagnosed schizophrenic who stabbed a woman to death at a bus stop in 2007.
Div. Seven had reversed Charles Elmore’s conviction of first degree murder, saying he was entitled to jury instructions concerning the effects of hallucinations on the elements of premeditation and deliberation.
The Supreme Court, however, said such instructions, which the defense requested on the basis of its theory that Elmore had a genuine but unreasonable belief that the victim intended imminent harm—thus reducing the crime to involuntary manslaughter—were properly denied by the trial judge. The theory of “imperfect self-defense,” Corrigan wrote, does not apply when the defendant’s fear is “purely delusional.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin concurred. Retired Justice Joyce L. Kennard, joined by Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar and Goodwin H. Liu, concurred in the result, but only on the ground that the defense presented insufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to find the defendant guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.
The cases are People v. Brown, 14 S.O.S. 2752 and People v. Elmore, 14 S.O.S. 2764.
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