Tuesday, June 28, 2016
S.C. Overturns Conviction in Downtown Hotel Slayings
Court Says Judge J.D. Smith, Now Retired, Precipitously Terminated Defendant’s Faretta Rights
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously overturned the double-murder conviction and death sentence handed a man convicted of strangling his victims in a downtown Los Angeles hotel room.
Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the court, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith, now retired, violated Frank Becerra’s right to represent himself. The judge’s findings that Becerra had been dilatory in approaching the case, which had not yet gone to preliminary hearing when Smith terminated his pro per status, are unsupported by the record, Corrigan said.
On Dec. 28, 1994, James Harding and Herman Jackson were found bound to each other and strangled with electrical cords in Harding’s room at the Pacific Grand Hotel. Witnesses said drugs were routinely bought and sold at the residential hotel, where Harding and Becerra lived.
Becerra was a drug dealer and 18th Street Gang member, according to testimony, and had repeatedly threatened to kill Harding in a dispute over missing cocaine. Prosecutors said the drugs had disappeared while Becerra was on a binge, and that Harding had brought some of the stash back but Becerra was angry that some was still missing.
Becerra allegedly came after Harding with some friends, found him in his room along with Jackson, tied the two men up, and strangled them with electric chords. The pair were found with their pants down around their ankles, a form of humiliation common to gang killings, prosecutors said.
Becerra was originally represented by Deputy Public Defender Gregory Fisher, but asked to represent himself in May 1995. After dealing with some discovery issues, Smith set a preliminary hearing scheduling hearing for Sept. 28.
At the outset of the hearing, however, Smith announced that he was terminating self-representation.
“I gave you pro per privileges a little over four months ago and you continued this case on at least six occasions,” he told the judge. “The Court finds that everything you’ve done is dilatory; that this case is never going to get off the ground; that the prelim will never occur; and that all you’re doing is stalling. Eventually it’s going to have to happen.
“I don’t want to hear from you anymore.”
Becerra cited some materials, including the Evidence Code, which he said were missing from the jail’s law library and that he needed “time to understand the law.”
He told the judge:
“This is a capital case and you’re dealing with my life….I haven’t done nothing to take this privilege away from me. You’re taking my constitutional rights from me and that is a reversible error [on] your part.”
He then cursed the judge and threw four or five sharpened pencils at Fisher, whom the judge had just reappointed, before being removed from the courtroom. His later requests to represent himself were denied, despite his insistence he could be ready for a preliminary hearing on 30 days’ notice.
‘Abruptness’ of Decision
While the trial court’s determination that a self-represented defendant has abused the right granted by Faretta v. California (1975) 422 U.S. 806 is usually entitled to deference, Corrigan said, the “abruptness” of the decision, the lack of opportunity for the defendant to be heard before the ruling, and the lack of explanation for a finding of dilatoriness made it impossible to defer to the trial judge and require automatic reversal of both the conviction and the sentence.
“Terminating a defendant’s self-representation status should be considered a last resort, not a first impulse,” Corrigan wrote. “If the court thought enough time had been spent sorting out discovery, that the outstanding items were unnecessary for the preliminary hearing, that defendant was stalling for tactical advantage, or that defendant needed to work with his investigator and be ready for the hearing by a date certain, the court should have said so on the record before taking dispositive action.”
She went on to say:
“It is possible something occurred before the final hearing that tried the court’s patience,” the justice wrote. “But if so, an adequate record is required to facilitate meaningful review. This is no mere technicality but an important mechanism to protect defendant’s constitutional guarantee. To be sure, defendant’s subsequent threats to the court and his assault on counsel were most inappropriate. The court, however, had already made up its mind and issued its termination ruling. This subsequent misconduct, no matter how serious, cannot shore up an unsupported ruling that had already taken place.”
The case was argued before the high court by Deputy State Public Defender Alison Bernstein and Deputy Attorney General Susan S. Kim.
In other news, the high court unanimously affirmed the death sentence for William Clinton Clark, sentenced to death by Orange Superior Court Judge John Ryan in 1997. Prosecutors said he was the mastermind behind a 1991 robbery attempt at a Fountain Valley computer store, which resulted in the death of Kathy Lee, who was shot and killed when she came to the store looking for her son, an employee.
Clark was also convicted of arranging the Gardena murder of Ardell Williams, who had accompanied him to the computer store, in order to prevent her from testifying against him.
The high court rejected his contention that the death sentence was disproportionate to his individual culpability, as compared to those of his brother and cousin, who were sentenced to life-without-parole for their roles in the Lee murder, in which Clark’s brother fired the fatal shot.
The cases are People v. Becerra, 16 S.O.S. 3120, and People v. Clark, 16 S.O.S. 3076.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company