Tuesday, August 26, 2014
S.C. Upholds Death Sentences in Drug-Related Valley Murders
Justices Reject Claim District Attorney’s Office Should Have Been Recused
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentences imposed on three members of a Pacoima-based drug gang, convicted in the murders of four people at a Lake View Terrace “rock house” in 1988.
The so-called “Bryant Family” had a reported multimillion dollar business. The case took six years to get to trial, and cost taxpayers a reported $3 million, and involved protracted pretrial motions, including two attempts to disqualify the entire Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan sentenced Stanley Bryant, Donald Franklin Smith, and Leroy Wheeler in 1995, in accordance with a jury verdict. Prosecutors said the defendants ambushed two men who had allegedly threatened to steal business from the gang, and that Wheeler then went outside and killed a woman and her 2-year-old child, who were waiting for the two men in a parked car.
More than 120 witnesses testified in the guilt phase of the trial, which lasted more than two months. Another 40 took the stand during seven days of penalty phase testimony.
A fourth defendant, Jon Preston Settle, avoided the death sentence when a single juror held out in the guilt phase. A mistrial was declared, and prosecutors, rather than retry the case, agreed to a negotiated plea of guilty to manslaughter charges.
Settle was sentenced to more than 21 years in prison.
A number of witnesses had worked for the “family” and testified about its operations. They said that Stanley Bryant was largely responsible for the gang’s operations, although they were still overseen by his older brother.
Jeff Bryant was in prison on drug charges at the time of the killings.
Witnesses said one of the victims, Andre Armstrong, had served six years in prison for manslaughter after being paid to kill a man who vandalized a car belonging to another Bryant brother. The manslaughter conviction was a result of a plea bargain after a murder conviction was thrown out on appeal.
Armstrong was said to have been upset at the Bryants for not adequately taking care of his family while he was in prison. His friend James Brown had established a Monterey drug business with the Bryants’ backing, but Armstrong decided he and Brown should establish their own business in Los Angeles and informed the “family” they were moving.
The “family” provided them with an apartment, but Armstrong complained it was dirty and that the organization should pay for the cleaning.
It was in response to a page from “Stan,” according to testimony, that Armstrong and Brown went to the Lake View Terrace house to pick up $500.
The house had fortifications similar to a prison. One could not move, or see into, one part of the house from another without moving through locked gates surrounded by metal bars.
Police said Brown and Armstrong were shot dead from close range after entering the house. Each was shot multiple times, with both a handgun and a shotgun.
Loretha Anderson was shot to death in her car, along with her daughter Chemise English. Her 18-month-old son, Carlos English, was found in the car, which had been driven from the scene.
The boy had been injured by flying glass, but was not shot. His mother and sister were dead, and the bodies of Brown and Armstrong were found in roadside brush four days later, about five miles from the house.
Prosecutors said Bryant had several reasons for wanting Armstrong eliminated. The victim had told a number of individuals, including police officers who interviewed him in prison, that he considered the Bryant organization “weak” and held it responsible for his being in prison, and said he planned to “squeeze” the Bryants for money and part of their business.
The other reason, prosecutors said, was that Armstrong was intimately involved with Stanley Bryant’s ex-wife.
Stanley Bryant testified that he had been trying to get out of the business after his brother went to prison. He admitted being at the house the day of the murders, but said he had nothing to do with the killings, and that William Settle, the brother of his codefendant—who had an antagonistic relationship with the others by the time of the trial—was running the operation at the time.
William Settle pled guilty to a drug conspiracy charge growing out of the case.
Wheeler also admitted his involvement with the drug operation, but denied involvement in the murders. Smith did not testify.
On appeal, the defendants argued that the entire Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office should have been disqualified from the case based on pretrial comments by the then-lead prosecutor, Jan Maurizi, that the drug organization had writ proceeding, the lead prosecutor asserted that Bryant Family employees had “infiltrated” the district attorney’s office. The defense had not been provided with discovery on that subject.
The defense also complained that the prosecution delayed disclosing unredacted interview notes of a deputy district attorney, who concluded that Maurizi and a police investigator had badgered a witness, affecting her testimony at the preliminary hearing. The witness did not testify at trial.
Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court, said the denial of disqualification was not grounds for reversal.
Noting that the prosecution team was replaced before trial, Corrigan wrote:
“Recusal is not a mechanism to punish past prosecutorial misconduct. Instead, it is employed if necessary to ensure that future proceedings will be fair….Defendants have failed to demonstrate a likelihood that [the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office] could not prosecute the case fairly. Nor do they show that, in fact, the ensuing proceedings were unfair.”
The court also rejected the claim that Horan committed prejudicial constitutional error by ordering the defendants to be restrained while seated at counsel table. The judge gave them the option of wearing shackles or stun belts, also known as REACT belts, and they chose the belts.
Corrigan acknowledged that the defendants had attended many court proceedings, and had never been disruptive or attempted escape. But there were still valid reasons for the restraints, she said, including the fact that many Bryant Family employees were at large and in a position to affect courthouse security, as well as the ongoing antagonism between Settle and the other defendants, who had to be kept apart at all times outside the courtroom.
The justice was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar, Marvin Baxter, and Ming Chin, along with First District Court of Appeal Justice Terence Bruiniers, sitting on assignment.
Justice Goodwin Liu concurred separately. He argued that there was no “manifest need” to order the defendants to wear stun belts, based on the record before the trial court, but said the error was harmless.
“[D]efendants point to nothing in the record showing that the stun belts adversely affected their demeanor or ability to assist counsel, or otherwise impaired their participation in the trial,” Liu wrote.
Deputy Attorney General Victoria B. Wilson argued the case for the prosecution. Court-appointed lawyers for the defendants were Assistant State Public Defender Kathleen M. Scheidel for Bryant, David H. Goodwin of Los Angeles for Smith, and Conrad Petermann of Ojai for Wheeler.
The case is People v. Bryant, 14 S.O.S. 3723.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company