Friday, February 27, 2015
Political Ties Between Judge and Prosecutor Not Automatically Disqualifying in Death Case—Court
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence in the killing of a Lake County woman, rejecting the defense argument that the defendant should get a new trial because the judge and the prosecutor had close personal, political, and professional ties.
The court rejected all contentions made on behalf of Jerrold Johnson on appeal from his conviction and sentence in the murder of 76-year-old Ellen Salling. Johnson admitted that he had killed Salling in her home, and stolen her car and other property, but the defense argued that he did not have the intent to steal when he entered the home.
At the time, Johnson had walked five miles from where he crashed his van, after being pursued by officers who intended to arrest him for violating parole.
Before trial, Lake Superior Court Judge Robert Crone Jr., himself a former district attorney of the county, disclosed that prosecutor Stephen Hedstrom had been a pallbearer at the funeral of Crone’s mother, that Hedstrom had been his deputy and had been placed in charge of the office while Crone prosecuted a change-of-venue case in another county, and that he had advised Hedstrom about his judicial campaign.
At the time of the trial, Hedstrom was a Lake Superior Court judge-elect, having won his seat in the previous June primary. He was the county’s district attorney at the time of the primary, but by the trial date, he was working as a contract prosecutor—solely on the Johnson case—and waiting to take his judicial seat at the end of the trial.
Johnson’s trial attorney did not object to Crone’s remaining on the case, explaining:
“Actually, just to let you know: Mr. Hedstrom and I had a conversation before your Honor took the bench about that very thing, and I talked to my client about it. As I explained to my client, I’ve practiced law in Fresno for 24 years; I’ve gone to law school with a couple of the judges; I’ve got a close personal relationship with a couple of the other judges, but I’ve never received a ruling from any of them that I didn’t deserve, either for or against my position. And Mr. Hedstrom expects that the rulings from the bench will be fair and impartial for both of us. My client agrees; and so we are ready to go, your Honor.”
After the defendant personally said he agreed with his lawyer, the case proceeded through trial and sentencing before Crone. Jurors found the defendant guilty of first degree murder, burglary, robbery, and carjacking, with special circumstances that the murder was committed in the course of all three of those felonies.
Johnson’s appellate lawyer, William Farber of San Rafael, argued on appeal that the trial judge should have disqualified himself sua sponte, and that no competent defense lawyer would have allowed Crone to sit on the case without objection.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court, disagreed:
“In reviewing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, we give great deference to counsel’s tactical decisions….Deciding whether to object to a judge is inherently tactical....Defense counsel was satisfied that Judge Crone would be fair. We have no basis to second-guess this tactical decision. As counsel noted when he accepted Judge Crone, friendship between a judge and an attorney who appears before the judge occurs routinely. This is especially true in small counties. This case is unusual in that the prosecutor was soon to become a judicial colleague of the judge. But Judge Crone made clear, and defendant agreed, that the relationship between him and the prosecutor would not affect his conduct of the case. Deciding not to challenge Judge Crone came within the range of tactical decisions competent counsel may make.”
With regard to the major substantive issue in the case, Chin rejected the defense argument that there was insufficient evidence to support the carjacking conviction or the carjacking special circumstance.
Given that Johnson had crashed his own vehicle and walked five miles to Salling’s neighborhood, which he was familiar with because he had delivered newspapers in the area, including Salling’s, then entered a home that had a garage and likely an automobile, jurors could reasonably infer that one of the reasons Salling was attacked—indeed “the defendant’s most pressing need” at the time—was so that Johnson could acquire an automobile and get as far away from his police pursuers as possible.
Chin’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Justice Carol Corrigan, and retired Justice Marvin Baxter and Court of Appeal Justice Elizabeth Grimes, both sitting on assignment.
Justice Kathryn Werdegar, in a concurring and dissenting opinion joined by Justice Goodwin Liu, argued that the evidence defendant had a prior intent to steal the car was insufficient for either a carjacking conviction or a special-circumstance finding.
The case is People v. Johnson, 15 S.O.S. 1108.
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