Friday, February 5, 2016
Judge’s Use of Vulgar Language Held Unethical, But Not Basis for Death Sentence Reversal
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A judge’s use of vulgar and disrespectful language in addressing defense counsel in a capital case violated ethics rules, but did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on Louis Peoples for four murders that occurred in the Stockton area in October and November 1997.
The victims included James Loper, 29, a fellow driver at the towing company where Peoples worked.
Loper was called to a rural area in the middle of the night and shot to death. Prosecutors said Peoples, who was on suspension at the time after testing positive for methamphetamine, called the company after the killing became public, expressed sadness over Loper’s death, and asked whether the company would terminate his suspension because it was suddenly shorthanded.
The second victim, Stephen Chacko, 39, was an Indian immigrant killed during a robbery of his store a week after the Loper killing. Besun Yu, 56, and a friend from China, Jun Gao, 46, were shot to death during a robbery at Yu’s market a week after Chacko was killed.
Police eventually linked Peoples to the killings after a vehicle registered to his wife was spotted at one of the crime scenes, and recovered the murder weapon—a Glock pistol that had been stolen from the van of an off-duty peace officer while the officer was watching a youth baseball game.
Peoples admitted the shootings after hours of interrogation. He was tried in Alameda County on a change of venue and convicted of four counts of first degree murder with special circumstances of lying in wait, multiple murder, and robbery.
He was also convicted of three counts of robbery, two counts of burglary, and one count of receiving stolen property.
Among the defense arguments on appeal was that Alameda Superior Court Judge Michael Platt, who heard the penalty phase retrial after jurors deadlocked 8-4 for life-without-parole in the first trial, had exhibited bias against the defense. Platt was originally assigned as the judge for the first trial, and heard pretrial proceedings, but was replaced after suffering a heart attack
Peoples’s counsel cited, among other comments, Platt’s remarks regarding a schedule for the preparation of proposed jury instructions for the first trial.
The judge said:
“I specifically and without equivocation ordered counsel to be available for this case and this case only. And I don’t care if it meant not eating, not sleeping, not taking a s—t, it absolutely was to have been focused on this case for the entire timeframe from the moment I made that order until the conclusion of the trial.”
On another occasion, regarding a proposed modification to the penalty instructions that would have further explained the meaning of mitigation factors, Platt said:
“To argue it so that [the jurors] are so…damned stupid that they cannot understand simple terminology.
“And I find offense to that. And assign no significant weight in argument to it….
“I have said it before, and I will say it again. If our system is so flawed because humans have their heads so far up their ass that they cannot understand the issues at hand in this case or these cases, then we should eliminate the jury system as a whole.”
The defense also took note on appeal that Platt was removed from office by the Commission on Judicial Performance in 2002, on charges including the dismissal of citations in four traffic cases that involved friends of the judge and that would normally have been handled by other judges.
Discipline Held Irrelevant
Justice Goodwin H. Liu, writing for the high court yesterday, said the CJP matter was irrelevant to the case of Peoples, who was sentenced two years earlier. As for the trial judge’s behavior toward Peoples’s lawyers, Liu noted, it occurred “outside the presence of the jury and thus did not result in a probability of actual bias.”
The justice continued:
“Although Judge Platt’s behavior outside the jury’s presence may provide context for his behavior in the jury’s presence, defendant offers no compelling examples of prejudicial behavior in front of the jury.”
The high court also rejected the argument that it was unconstitutional to retry the penalty phase after a majority of jurors voted against the death penalty in the first trial. Similar arguments have been rejected in the past, Liu pointed out.
In another case yesterday, justices unanimously upheld the death penalty for Jose Lupercio Casares, sentenced in Tulare County in 1992 for the 1989 shooting murder of Guadalupe Sanchez in the back of the head after a robbery.
Casares was involved in a drug deal near Ivanhoe in rural Tulare County and had intended to rob Sanchez, his cocaine connection, prosecutors said. The justices rejected the argument that there was insufficient evidence of premeditation and lying in wait, saying the jury could have inferred from testimony that Casares and two associates hatched a plan to lure the victim to the place where he was shot in order to steal drugs.
The cases are People v. Peoples, 16 S.O.S. 679, and People v. Casares, 16 S.O.S. 709.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company