Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, July 6, 2015


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S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Veteran Who Claimed PTSD




The California Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed the death sentence of a Vietnam veteran convicted of a triple robbery-murder, rejecting his argument that the abuse he suffered as a child, combined with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, render the penalty excessive.

Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing Thursday for the court, agreed with San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith, who imposed the death sentence on John Lee Cunningham, that while Cunningham had a difficult life, those experiences were not the root cause of the 1992 murders at Surplus Office Sales in Ontario.  

The bodies of Jose Silva, an SOS employee; David Smith, the assistant manager; and Wayne Sonke, the manager, were found by firefighters responding to a call. They found an inactive fire in the office portion of the building; the bodies of the three men were found in a bathroom.

The men had been bound and shot in the head. Investigators ultimately focused on Cunningham, who had previously worked at other businesses owned by SOS owner Michael Ray. They traced him to South Dakota, where he was arrested and interrogated, after having he picked up his girlfriend in Las Vegas, then drove to Atlantic City and then southwest through Arkansas before heading north.

In an audiotaped statements and later a video reenactment, he explained how he had robbed and killed the victims. His comments about the crimes were interspersed with references to dreams, things he had allegedly done in Vietnam, and expressions of relief at being caught.

He waived his right to a jury trial in the guilt phase, during which his counsel presented no testimony. Smith found him guilty of three counts of first degree murder, with special circumstances of robbery, burglary, and multiple murder, and of three counts of robbery and one count each of arson, burglary, and possession of firearm by a felon.

The judge also found that several enhancements based on prior convictions applied.

Jury Selection

A jury was selected for the penalty phase, and heard 34 days of testimony. Prosecutors, in addition to presenting evidence regarding the murders themselves, showed that Cunningham had past convictions for armed robbery and sex offenses against minors.

The defense based its case in mitigation on the defendant’s dysfunctional childhood, as well as his Vietnam experiences, including service in reconnaissance units responsible for clearing villages not under the control of friendly forces. Two experts on PTSD testified, one of whom opined that Cunningham suffered from the malady and that he was likely in a dissociative state when he committed the SOS murders.

The prosecution, however, brought out evidence that Cunningham had been court-martialed multiple time for being AWOL, both before and after his deployment; that his platoons had always evacuated the villages they cleared, burning the buildings but not harming women and children, whom Cunningham claimed haunted his dreams; and that—with the exception of a mortar accident in which a medic died—there had been no fatalities in any of the platoons while Cunningham served with them.

Prosecutors also cross-examined the 19 veterans whom the defense called to explain their own experiences with PTSD, establishing that none of them had committed felonies.

Jurors returned a death penalty verdict. Smith denied the automatic motion for modification of the verdict, citing the “high degree of cold-blooded callousness” with which the crimes were committed, along with the defendant’s prior record.  

‘Greatly Attenuated’

The judge acknowledged that Cunningham’s military service, his childhood problems, and his issues with PTSD were entitled to weight in mitigation, but said that weight had been “greatly attenuated” by the passage of time and could not outweigh the seriousness of his later crimes.

Werdegar, writing for the Supreme Court, agreed.

Imposing the death sentence for the crimes committed by the defendant, in light of all of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, does not “shock[ ] the conscience” or “offend[ ] fundamental notions of human dignity,” the justice wrote.

“Defendant received a death sentence for three burglary and robbery murders committed by him alone, purely for financial gain, the jurist explained, continuing:

“Although the three victims cooperated fully with defendant’s demands and offered no resistance, he nevertheless shot and killed them one by one.  He also had an extensive prior criminal record including prior prison and jail terms.  Defendant attempts to mitigate his personal culpability by citing his traumatic childhood and Vietnam War experiences and resulting PTSD.  We agree with the trial court that these circumstances ultimately did not affect defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.  Defendant’s actions at the time of the murders showed a rational, logical, intelligent, and calculated thought process, and his efforts to destroy evidence and to avoid capture by fleeing across the country amply demonstrate his awareness of the wrongfulness of his actions. “

The case is People v. Cunningham, 15 S.O.S. 3427.


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