Friday, August 22, 2014
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Throat-Slashing Killer
Limitations on Evidence Implicating Original Suspect Not Prejudicial, Justices Rule
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of three murders in a case in which it took five months to seat a jury, 56 days of testimony before the jury got to deliberate, and seven days of deliberation to reach a partial verdict.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Laura Palmer Hammes sentenced David Allen Lucas of Spring Valley to death in 1989 for the murders of Suzanne Jacobs, her 3-year-old son Collin, and Anne Catherine Swanke. Jurors acquitted him of one murder, deadlocked 11-1 for conviction on two others, and convicted him of one count of attempted murder.
All of the victims had their throats cut, but Jody Santiago Robertson survived and identified Lucas as her attacker. The crimes occurred between 1979 and 1984.
Impaired Memory Claimed
Defense attorneys challenged Robertson, saying her memory was impaired by trauma. They attacked the prosecution’s use of serological evidence and sought to convince jurors that another man was responsible for the crimes.
That man, a Kentucky drifter named John Massingale, was arrested for the 1979 Jacobs murders and was still in custody when Lucas was arrested in 1984 and charged with the later crimes. Massingale confessed, but later recanted, saying that he said what the police wanted him to in order to avoid the death penalty and that his confession only matched the physical details of the murders because the police showed him many photos of the interior of the victims’ house.
Police and prosecutors ultimately became persuaded, based on physical evidence, that it was Lucas and not Massingale who committed the Jacobs murders. Massingale was released after several years in custody, received a declaration of factual innocence, filed suit for wrongful arrest, and was called as a witness at Lucas’ trial to bolster the claim that he had been mistakenly charged and that Lucas had committed all of the murders.
The Jacobs killings occurred in 1979 in the Normal Heights section. Evidence used to tie Lucas to the crimes included a bloodstained note, containing the name and phone number of a local insurance brokerage from which Lucas obtained a policy around the time of the murders.
Massingale testified that he was essentially illiterate.
Lucas was acquitted in the death of Gayle Roberta Garcia, a realtor who was found with her throat slashed in a vacant Spring Valley house in 1981.
The Robertson attack occurred in June 1984 in El Cajon. Rhonda Strang, 24, and Amber Fisher, 3, were killed in October 1984, a month before the body of the last victim, Swanke, was found on a Spring Valley hillside.
Strang, whose brother was a friend and employee of Lucas, was baby-sitting the child when the crimes occurred. Strang’s husband was a drug dealer—there was evidence Lucas was a customer—and the defense suggested he may have killed his wife and Amber after learning that she was cooperating with a police investigation of his activities.
Conflict of Interest
On appeal, the defense argued that Hammes should have disqualified the District Attorney’s Office due to conflict of interest.
It was unfair, the defense contended, to allow the same agency that had prosecuted Massingale to prosecute Lucas, in part on the basis of Massingale’s testimony that he was innocent. The District Attorney’s Office, counsel claimed, was arguing in the criminal case that Massingale’s confession was involuntary, while claiming in defense of his civil suit that he was cooperative and the police did nothing improper.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing for a unanimous court, said that even if the asserted conflict existed, it did not require the extraordinary remedy sought by the defense.
“[The defendant] does not explain how the conflict may have altered any trial testimony to his detriment,” the chief justice wrote “If anything, the prosecutor’s assertion in the civil case that Massingale’s confession was voluntary would have encouraged those who interrogated him to describe Massingale’s confession as uncoerced, and this circumstance would have assisted defendant in his third-party culpability defense.”
Cantil-Sakauye also said there was no prejudice to the defendant as a result of limitations Hammes placed on defense cross-examination regarding Massingale’s civil suit.
The ruling was erroneous, the chief justice acknowledged, because it rested “on the false assumption that Massingale’s finding of factual innocence could be admitted into evidence in his civil trial,” when in reality it was inadmissible by statute.
But the error was not of constitutional magnitude, Cantil-Sakauye explained, and would only be grounds for reversal if it was more probable not that jurors would have reached a verdict more favorable to the defense if they had heard the testimony.
Jurors knew that Massingale had confessed to the Jacobs murders, spent years in custody as a result, recanted, and had been found factually innocent, the chief justice pointed out. He had been examined and cross-examined at length, she said, and “jurors were fully aware that Massingale had a significant incentive, albeit not necessarily financial, to testify against defendant — an interest in avoiding prosecution and the death penalty.”
Given all of that, the additional knowledge that he had a civil suit pending would not have changed jurors’ perception of his credibility, Cantil-Sakauye said.
The case is People v. Lucas, 14 S.O.S. 3637.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company