Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Former Plumber Who Killed Ex-Girlfriend
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the death sentence for a former Van Nuys plumber who killed his ex-girlfriend after she told him she was reconciling with her husband.
The justices unanimously upheld the conviction of Donald Lewis Brooks Jr. for the killing of Lisa Kerr, which jurors found to be accompanied by special circumstances of torture and kidnapping. Six justices voted to affirm in full, while one argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the kidnapping special circumstance, but voted to uphold the death sentence based on the torture special circumstance alone.
Prosecutors said Brooks tried to strangle the Van Nuys woman and then put her in the back of a car, setting it on fire on the side of a freeway in Arleta in March 1999. The two had met in Alcoholics Anonymous, and Brooks told a fellow member, who testified for the prosecution, that he was in love with Kerr and that their relationship was perfect.
He also told the witness that he was upset at the possibility of Kerr, who separated from her husband after meeting Brooks, going back to her husband, with whom she had a young child. He said he wanted to stab the husband or “get him out of the picture,” the witness testified.
The defense did not challenge the evidence that Brooks killed Kerr, but said he acted in the heat of passion.
In the penalty phase, the prosecution presented evidence that Brooks had committed several acts of violence against his ex-wife during their three-year marriage, along with victim-impact testimony. The defense countered with witnesses who said Brooks had survived a childhood characterized by alcohol abuse and domestic violence, and was a kind and caring person and loving father of three.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Warren Greene, now deceased, imposed sentence based on the jury’s death penalty verdict, calling the crime heinous" and "reprehensible in every respect,” according to a newspaper account.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote yesterday’s majority opinion. She agreed with the attorney general that there was enough circumstantial evidence for jurors to conclude that Kerr was taken from her residence with criminal intent separate from that required to convict Brooks of murder, thus supporting the kidnapping special circumstance, which the court had asked counsel to focus on at oral argument.
“Here, the record discloses substantial evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer that defendant had not yet decided Kerr’s fate after incapacitating her and moving her into the back of her own car,” the chief justice wrote. She cited evidence of a three-hour time gap between the time Kerr left a friend’s house and the discovery of her body by firefighters, even though Brooks’s plumber’s assistant testified that Brooks told him he had confronted her right after she left her friend’s house and strangled her into unconsciousness.
Jurors could also infer from the complicated nature of the couple’s relationship “that defendant was conflicted regarding what to do with Kerr after he strangled her.”
Cantil-Sakauye was joined in the opinion by Justices Ming Chin, Carol Corrigan, Kathryn M. Werdegar, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, and Leondra Kruger.
Justice Goodwin H. Liu, dissented as to the kidnapping special circumstance only. The suggestion that “Brooks was in a ‘state of panic’ or unsure about Kerr’s fate when he drove away, or that he some additional motive in transporting her unconscious body,” is not consistent with the case argued by the prosecutor—then-Deputy District Attorney Scott Gordon, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge—at trial, Liu argued.
The case was argued in the Supreme Court by San Diego attorney John L. Staley for the defense and Deputy Attorney General Allison H. Chung of Los Angeles for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Brooks, S099274.
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company