Friday, March 14, 2014
Court Upholds Death Sentence in Murder of Teenager
Justices Reject Claim of Prosecutorial Misconduct Based on Discovery Violation
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for one of four men convicted of the 1994 murder of a Riverside County teenager who was kidnapped so that the defendants could take his car and get to a birthday party.
Justice Ming Chin wrote for a unanimous court, rejecting in a 115-page opinion all of Joseph Montes’ attacks on his conviction of the first degree murder of Mark Walker—with special circumstances of robbery, kidnapping, and kidnapping for robbery—and on the death sentence imposed by Riverside Superior Court Judge Robert J. McIntyre.
Witnesses testified that Walker, an honor student and athlete, was on his way from Banning to Moreno Valley to shop for school clothes when Montes and two other defendants—Ashley Gallegos and Travis Lee Hawkins carjacked him because they needed a ride to Salvador Varela’s birthday party in Corona.
Walker was stuffed into the trunk of the car and left there during the party, then taken to a remote location. He was shot in the face when he attempted to run after the trunk was opened.
Montes, identified as the shooter, later bragged about the killing to friends and family members, and he and the others were implicated by Varela. The four were tried together, although a separate jury was empaneled in the case of Varela because his statements could not be used to incriminate his co-defendants under Confrontation Clause principles.
All were found guilty. Montes’ co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
Among the claims raised by the defense on appeal was that the prosecutor committed misconduct during the cross-examination of Montes’ wife, who testified for the defense in the penalty trial.
The alleged impropriety occurred when the prosecutor produced a letter and asked:
“Do you recall writing a letter to your husband in which you asked him to get you the names of the people involved in the prosecution so you could give them to somebody?”
The witness answered in the negative. The defense objected that the letter had not been produced in discovery and moved for a mistrial.
After hearing the argument outside the presence of the jury, with the prosecution arguing that the letter was rebuttal evidence not subject to discovery, the prosecutor agreed to withdraw the letter rather than have the court delay the trial to research the issue.
McIntyre then denied the mistrial and instructed the jury to ignore the question and response.
Chin, writing for the Supreme Court, said that any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in light of the admonition, and because there was nothing to indicate the defense would have been conducted differently if the letter had been produced before trial.
The justice wrote:
“In any event, the admonition was sufficient. Defendant’s wife had denied writing the letter in the only question she answered concerning it. With the jury admonished to disregard the last pending question concerning whether the letter was in her handwriting, there remained nothing in evidence about the letter for the jury to consider. We presume the jury followed the trial court’s instructions.”
The case is People v. Montes, 14 S.O.S. 1261.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company