Tuesday, January 6, 2015
California Supreme Court Upholds Shasta County Death Sentence
In 4-3 Ruling, Court Says Exclusion of Putative Declarations Against Interest Was Harmless
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the death sentence for a Shasta County man, saying the exclusion of evidence by which the defendant attempted to deflect blame to a deceased accomplice was harmless.
In a 4-3 decision, the court said hearsay statements attributed to John Morris—who killed himself in jail the day after his arrest for the murder of Betty Bone—might have been admissible as declarations against interest in the trial of Gary Grimes. The justices held, however, that admission of the statements would not have changed the outcome of Grimes’ trial because they were not inconsistent with the prosecution theory that Grimes ordered Morris and Patrick Wilson to commit the murder.
Grimes was sentenced to death in Shasta County in 1999 for the stabbing death of the 98-year-old woman in her home on Oct. 18, 1995. Prosecutors said she was stabbed multiple times, as well as strangled, when she walked in to find the three men burglarizing her home in the town of Bella Vista, six miles east of Redding.
The house was ransacked and several valuable items were stolen, including a pickup truck, which was found underwater the following morning at a boat ramp.
Following Morris’ suicide, Grimes told police he was involved in the burglary and robbery, but was not involved in the murder. He said he did not intend for anyone to be killed, but admitted providing Morris with a gun.
At trial, the defense tried to admit into evidence statements by two witnesses—a friend of the defendant and a county jail inmate—that Morris told them that Grimes did not participate in the murder and was in another part of the house when it occurred. Shasta Superior Court Judge Bradley L. Boeckman, however, ruled that those statements were not declarations against interest under Evidence Code §1230.
Jurors found Grimes guilty of murder, robbery, burglary, and conspiracy, and taking of a motor vehicle, and voted to impose the death penalty.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the high court, said the exclusion of the putative declarations against interest was harmless.
The chief justice cited testimony by Jonathan Howe, a prisoner who had been housed with Grimes in the county jail, that Grimes told him he had ordered Wilson and Morris to tie up Bone and kill her.
Cantil-Sakauye noted that the prosecution never argued, nor presented evidence suggesting, that Grimes was involved in the actual stabbing and strangulation.
“We find no reasonable possibility that the excluded evidence would have caused the jury to doubt Howe’s testimony,” she wrote. “Statements that defendant did not participate in the actual killing were not inconsistent with Howe’s testimony that defendant admitted he ordered Morris to kill Bone, and they were consistent with Howe’s testimony that defendant said he had never touched Bone.”
The chief justice also rejected the argument that the attorney general forfeited the harmless error argument by not raising it prior to oral argument, following which the court requested supplemental briefing on the issue.
Treating the argument as forfeited, Cantil-Sakauye insisted, would violate the state Constitution’s command that judgments of trial courts not be reversed unless “after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”
A briefing failure, she wrote, “does not relieve this court of its constitutional responsibility to determine whether any error resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”
Justices Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan, and newly retired Justice Marvin Baxter, sitting on assignment, concurred in the opinion.
Justice Goodwin Liu, joined by Justice Laurie Zelon of this district’s Div. Seven, said the court had violated principles of fairness and neutrality when it invited the prosecution to brief the harmless-error issue, after the defense had filed its reply brief and submitted its focus-issues letter, rather than treating the claim as forfeited.
“[N]o authority supports this court’s approach of inviting and considering belated arguments on harmless error when the government, in response to a defendant’s clearly stated claim of prejudice, does not address the issue. Instead, harmless error analysis must be based on the record and arguments that are properly before the reviewing court.”
Turning to the merits, Liu said the statements were admissible and their exclusion prejudicial, arguing:
“In this case, the trial court erred in excluding Morris’s statements…because they were clearly admissible as statements against Morris’s penal interests. Applying the proper legal standards for harmless error in a capital trial, I find the error unquestionably harmless as to Grimes’s guilt of special circumstance murder. But I do not believe the error can be deemed harmless as to the penalty verdict because the excluded statements were crucial to rebutting the principal evidence of Grimes’s leadership and depravity with respect to the killing.”
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, also dissenting from the portion of the decision upholding the death sentence, agreed with the majority that the harmless-error issue could be considered, but agreed with Liu and Zelon that the statements should have been admitted and that the death penalty might not have been imposed if they were.
The case is People v. Grimes, 14 S.O.S. 706
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