Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, July 12, 2016


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S.C. Tosses Death Sentence in Stockton Murder

Justices Say Venire Member Should Not Have Been Removed Over Death Penalty Views


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of murdering the son of a liquor store owner during a robbery.

Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote for a unanimous court in saying that a San Joaquin Superior Court judge wrongly dismissed a prospective juror in Louis Zaragoza’s trial. Though the juror opposed the death penalty, the court said she showed she could set aside her views on capital punishment when determining a sentence.

Witnesses said the defendant and his brother, David Zaragoza, robbed William Gaines, 87, after he returned home from his Stockton liquor store in June 1999 and shot and killed Gaines’ 36-year-old son, David Gaines, who came to his father’s aid.

David Zaragoza, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was found incompetent to stand trial, and Louis Zaragosa’s defense sought to shift the blame to him.

Cuéllar said Judge Thomas Teaford should not have excused a woman identified only as Juror No. 129 from the panel for cause. Although some of her responses to the juror questionnaire indicated strong misgivings about the death penalty, the justice said, the entirety of the record indicates she could have set those reservations aside and voted for the death penalty on the facts of the case.

The jurist cited her unqualified statement, in another questionnaire response, that she could find the defendant guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances, knowing that he would potentially face the death penalty. She also said that she would not automatically vote for a life-without-parole sentence based on her death penalty views, that she would honor the standard of proof, that she would follow the court’s instructions if the case went to a penalty phase, and that she would be able to set aside her personal feelings in order to follow the law.

Noting that the burden was on the prosecution to establish good cause for the venire member’s removal, Cuéllar wrote:

“In assessing whether the prosecution carried its burden, the question is not whether the record might reasonably have supported a finding that the juror was unwilling to follow instructions pertaining to the death penalty.  Rather, a prospective juror may be discharged for cause solely on the basis of written questionnaire responses only if it is ‘clear’ from those responses that the juror is unable or unwilling to temporarily set aside the juror’s beliefs and follow the law….Where a prospective juror’s written responses are ambiguous with respect to the individual’s willingness or ability to follow the court’s instructions in a potential penalty phase, the record does not support a challenge for cause.”

The jurist cited People v. Stewart (2004) 33 Cal.4th 425, which held that a trial judge erred in rejecting five proposed jurors merely because their responses to an inquiry on a questionnaire indicated some level of opposition to the death penalty.

Because the specific question and the responses were too ambiguous to establish that the potential jurors would be unwilling to follow the law, then-Chief Justice Ronald M. George explained in that case, the judge should have asked follow-up questions. His failure to do so, the chief justice went on to say, violated the defendant’s constitutional right to trial by a jury of his peers.

Cuéllar distinguished People v. Avila (2006) 38 Cal.4th 491, holding that prospective jurors in a capital case may be discharged for cause based solely on their answers to a written questionnaire, if it is clear from their answers that they are unwilling to temporarily set aside their own beliefs and follow the law. Unlike Prospective Juror No. 129, Cuéllar explained, the prospective juror in Avila made clear that he would never vote for a first degree murder conviction knowing that it might ultimately result in a death sentence.

While overturning the death sentence, the high court upheld Zaragoza’s first degree murder conviction, along with the special-circumstance findings of robbery-murder and lying in wait, so that the defendant will either be retried with regard only to the penalty, or resentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

In doing so, the court rejected the contention that Teaford erred in quashing a defense subpoena for David Zaragoza’s testimony.

Cuéllar said the attorney for David Zaragoza had the right to invoke his client’s protection against self-incrimination under the Constitution, and that once he did so, the trial judge could declare him unavailable as a witness.

The case is People v. Zaragoza, 16 S.O.S. 3430.


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