Tuesday, August 23, 2016
High Court Reverses Death Sentence on Rehearing
Justices, in 4-3 Ruling, Say Erroneous Ruling on Hearsay Requires New Penalty Phase
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday ordered a penalty phase retrial for a Shasta County man, saying his death sentence must be reversed because the trial judge excluded evidence suggesting his accomplice was the actual killer.
In a 4-3 decision on rehearing, Justice Leondra R. Kruger, who did not participate in the original decision, which was handed down the day she joined the court, said the error was prejudicial as to the sentencing phase but not the guilt phase.
The court issued its original ruling in People v. Grimes (2015) 60 Cal. 4th 729 on Jan. 5, 2015, affirming Gary Grimes’ conviction and sentence. Two months later, Kruger and Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who was sworn in the same day as Kruger, joined previous dissenters Kathryn M. Werdegar and Goodwin H. Liu in voting to rehear the case.
The same four justices formed the majority in yesterday’s ruling.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, author of the original majority opinion, dissented from the death penalty reversal, joined by Justices Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan. The three, together with retired Justice Marvin Baxter, who sat on assignment on the first day of his retirement, formed the original 4-3 majority.
Court of Appeal Justice Laurie Zelon of this district’s Div. Seven, sat by assignment and joined Liu and Werdegar in the original dissent.
Grimes was sentenced to die in Shasta County in 1999, after being convicted of first degree murder in the stabbing death of 98-year-old Betty Bone in her home on Oct. 18, 1995. Prosecutors said she was stabbed multiple times, as well as strangled, when she walked in to find Grimes, John Morris, and a third man 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. Morris killed himself in jail the day after his arrest.
Following Morris’s 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—Misty Adams, 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.
Kruger wrote, however:
“As the trial court in this case correctly held, the portions of Morris’s statements admitting to stabbing Bone were admissible under Evidence Code section 1230 because a reasonable person in Morris’s position would have believed that these admissions would subject him to criminal liability.”
Where the trial judge—and her dissenting colleagues—were wrong, Kruger said, was in concluding that the remainder of Morris’s statements, in which he said that Grimes was not a participant in the actual killing, did not similarly qualify as declarations against interest because they did not further incriminate Morris.
“Considered in context, the disputed portions of those two statements form part of Morris’s admission of responsibility for killing Bone and thus, for purposes of Evidence Code section 1230, are not practically separable from the remainder of the statements. In each instance, the disputed portion of the statement elaborated on Morris’s responsibility for the murder; rather than attempting to minimize his responsibility or shift blame to others, Morris instead assumed sole responsibility. A reasonable person in Morris’s position, moreover, would have understood that Morris’s explanatory comment in his statement to Misty — when he confessed to undiluted responsibility for carrying out the brutal murder of Bone and elaborated on that confession by acknowledging that his confederates looked on in surprise as it occurred — was against his penal interest.”
The error was harmless as to the guilt phase, she said, because Morris was guilty under the felony-murder rule even if he was not present when Bone was killed, and even if he had no intent that the killing take place. But the error was prejudicial as to the penalty phase, the justice declared, because jurors hearing the evidence might have found Grimes less culpable and returned a life-without-parole verdict.
Cantil-Sakauye argued in dissent:
“The majority’s expansion of the against-interest exception represents a significant and, in my view, misguided shift in our interpretation of Evidence Code section 1230. In effect, the majority endorses a form of bootstrapping whereby a specifically disserving statement can tow related collateral assertions within a larger, generally incriminating narrative into the against-interest exception. This is not merely a ‘contextual approach,’ as the majority characterizes it…since the ‘specifically disserving’ standard already requires the consideration of a statement’s context…Instead, the majority’s invocation of ‘context’ provides cover for its dilution of the prevailing rule.”
The case is People v. Grimes, 16 S.O.S. 4306.
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