Tuesday, April 28, 2015
High Court Overturns Death Sentence, Says Judge Wrongly Excluded Expert on Prison Conditions
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defendant on Death Row is entitled to a new sentencing trial because the judge improperly excluded defense experts from testifying in the penalty phase of the original trial that the defendant wouldn’t be an undue risk to prison security, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The court ruled in favor of Paul Gordon Smith Jr. on the sentencing issue, although it upheld his convictions for first degree murder with the special circumstance of torture, false imprisonment by violence and conspiracy to commit murder.
The victim, 20-year-old Lora Sinner, was killed during an extended 1998 camping trip with Smith; his sister Lori Smith; a 14-year-old runaway with whom the defendant had become romantically involved, and who was identified as Amy S.; and Eric Rubio, a friend of the defendant who was dating Lori Smith.
Sinner apparently drew the ire of the other women when she began flirting with the defendant. Weeks after the killing, police were called by someone who learned about the murder from Lori Smith.
They questioned Paul Smith, who said he would take responsibility for the crime because the others couldn’t handle prison. He initially denied being involved with the beating, claiming he was incapacitated at the time due to drug use.
He later admitted to striking the victim, saying he convinced her to let him kill her in order to end her suffering, and that she “would have died either way.”
“She didn’t want to die. I had to convince her,” Smith said on a videotape played for jurors, according to a news account of the trial.
Rubio and Lori Smith entered pleas before trial, and testified for the prosecution. Amy S. was tried as a juvenile, and also testified.
Prior to his trial, Smith was involved in an attempted escape from jail, in which a guard was brutally attacked, which Smith blamed on his fellow plotter. Those circumstances, and other evidence of violent jail conduct, were introduced in the penalty phase of the trial.
During that penalty phase, the defense sought to call former San Quentin Assistant Warden James Park as an expert, to testify that prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment without parole are kept under close watch, and are placed in solitary confinement and locked down for all but short periods of time if they act dangerously.
Prosecutors moved to exclude the testimony under People v. Quartermain (1997) 16 Cal.4th 600, holding that “evidence of the conditions of confinement that a defendant will experience if sentenced to life imprisonment without parole is irrelevant to the jury’s penalty determination because it does not relate to the defendant’s character, culpability, or the circumstances of the offense.”
The defense argued that under the particular circumstances, an exception should apply, allowing the accused to rebut the prosecution’s inference that he would be a danger to employees or other inmates if confined.
The judge disagreed and excluded the testimony.
Justice Carol Corrigan, however, writing for the high court, said the defense was correct.
“We agree that the exclusion of Park’s testimony was a violation of due process, because it deprived defendant of the opportunity to counter aggravating evidence and argument suggesting that he would be a dangerous life prisoner,” the justice wrote.
The case is People v. Smith, 15 S.O.S. 2033.
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