Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, August 10, 2015


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Panel Throws Out One Conviction in Murder Case, Upholds Another




Prosecutors’ failure to advise defense lawyers of key details regarding an agreement with a crucial witness requires that a first degree murder conviction resulting from the 1981 kidnapping and murder of a young couple be tossed out, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

The court’s decision was only a partial victory for Joseph Shelton, currently serving 40 years to life in prison for the murders of Kevin Thorpe and Laura Craig and related crimes. While the panel ruled that Shelton is entitled to be retried in connection with his conviction of the first degree murder of Thorpe, it left standing his convictions for the second degree murder of Craig, and on multiple counts of kidnapping and theft.

Thorpe and Craig were abducted while driving through Madeline in Lassen County on Jan. 11, 1981, on their way to college. Shelton, Benjamin Silva and Norman Thomas were charged with the crimes.

Thomas, who had been picked up for a probation violation after the couple were killed, told police about the murders and directed them to Thorpe’s remains and other physical evidence. Shelton later turned himself in and led police to Craig’s remains.

Thomas made a deal with prosecutors and testified against Silva and Shelton, in separate trials.

He said the three of them spotted Thorpe and Craig at a gas station, followed them down the road and used a red light to make them pull them over.

Silva and Thomas hopped in the car and abducted the couple at gunpoint. With Shelton driving behind, they soon arrived at a cabin in the woods.

They kept Thorpe chained to a tree overnight. Shelton and Silva walked him up a hill the next day where Silva mowed him down with a machine gun.

They held Craig a few days longer, but Shelton and Silva eventually put her back in the car, and Silva shot and killed her on the side of the road. Thomas said he dismembered Thorpe’s body at Silva’s direction, and that the two of them disposed of it.

Defendant’s Claim

Shelton claimed he was intoxicated on drugs and alcohol on the night of the kidnapping and Thorpe’s murder. He said he only went along with it because he feared Silva would “kill him and his family” if he didn’t.

He claimed to have no suspicion that Silva was planning to kill either Thorpe or Craig when he accompanied them. Though he admitted to shooting Thorpe after Silva had emptied one and a half clips into the man, he said he did so out of fear for his life and that he tried not to aim at the victim.

He claimed his story had changed since his initial interviews because he had tried to block out the murder.

Thomas insisted that none of the three were on drugs or alcohol the night of the kidnapping. He said it was Shelton, not Silva, who chained Thorpe to a tree, and that Shelton was armed when he and Silva took Thorpe up the hill.

To ensure that no one would hear the gunfire, Shelton told Thomas to turn up the stereo volume, Thomas claimed.

Thomas also said Shelton later laughed when recounting Thorpe’s murder to him and that Shelton said he told Thorpe “to look at the mountain because it was the last thing he would see.

After Shelton was tried and convicted, Silva stood trial, with Thomas again the main prosecution witness, while Shelton was called to the stand but invoked the Fifth Amendment.

Court’s Ruling

Silva was convicted on all charges except the murder of Craig. He was sentenced to death, but was granted habeas corpus relief in 2005 when the Ninth Circuit ruled that Paul DePasquale, the Lassen County district attorney at the time, engaged in prejudicial misconduct by failing to disclose an agreement with Thomas’ attorney that if Thomas did not undergo a psychiatric examination prior to pleading guilty to the non-homicide charges and testifying against the others, the murder charges against Thomas would be dropped.

Shelton, who claimed to have no knowledge of the secret deal before he read the 2005 Ninth Circuit opinion in the prison law library, then brought his own habeas petitions, first in state courts, where he was unsuccessful, then in U.S. District Court. Chief District Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the Northern District of California denied relief, but granted leave to appeal as to the materiality of the undisclosed agreement.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said a fair reading of the entire record required a finding that it was at least reasonably possible that a jury with knowledge that Thomas’s mental health was at issue would not have found Shelton guilty of premeditated murder.

“Evidence that the prosecution believed Thomas to be incompetent was powerful fodder for impeaching his testimony against Shelton,” Reinhardt said.  

The judge also concluded, however that the district attorney’s “inexcusable” misconduct did not compel relief as to the other crimes, as there was “extremely strong” evidence apart from Thomas’s testimony to sustain the convictions.

The first degree murder charge must be retried, or the defendant resentenced on the other counts, within a reasonable time, the panel ruled.

The case is Shelton v. Marshall, 13-15707.


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