Friday, July 20, 2018
Supreme Court Reverses Death Penalty Based on Dismissal of Venireman
S.C. Says Prospective Juror Should Have Been Questioned as to Ability to Perform Despite Opposition to Capital Punishment; No Reversal Based on Incompetent Counsel
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court decided yesterday that a former attorney did not provide ineffective assistance to his client in a 2002 capital murder trial despite being on State Bar probation following a six-month suspension, but reversed the judgment of death due to the improper dismissal of a prospective juror based on his opposition to capital punishment.
Defense counsel in the case, Mark I. Blankenship of Riverside, was on a five-year probation after stipulating to 10 counts of misconduct in 2000. He had been on actual suspension for six months.
(In 2006, he stipulated to another 17 acts of misconduct, including abandoning a client, and resigned that year with charges pending.)
In the unanimous opinion by Justice Ming W. Chin, the high court determined that, while Blankenship had made some errors, his conduct did not rise to the level of incompetence.
Murder of Policeman
In 2001, the defendant Steve Woodruff fatally shot Riverside police officer Charles D. Jacobs while Jacobs was responding to a noise complaint at Woodruff’s mother’s house, near where Woodruff lived.
Then-Riverside Superior Court Judge Christian F. Thierbach (who retired in 2015) heard evidence that Woodruff’s IQ was between 65 and 80, but ultimately determined that he did not have an intellectual disability that would make him incompetent to stand trial.
Chin spent substantial portions of his analysis on Woodruff’s competence considering the defendant’s interactions with the court on the question of retaining Blankenship as his counsel.
About a month before the trial in 2001, the prosecutor asked the judge to conduct an inquiry into Blankenship’s competence to handle a defense involving a capital crime. Acceding to the request, Thierbach made note that Blankenship, who was not a criminal defense attorney, had failed to request investigative funds to which Woodruff was entitled, and had not brought certain motions the judge viewed as necessary parts of the proceedings.
When the judge made his misgivings clear to Woodruff and offered to appoint a deputy public defender, the defendant asserted his belief that the attorney, who was representing him pro bono, had been sent from “higher up” to represent him.
Chin viewed this statement as evidence of Woodruff’s competence, not incompetence. He explained:
“Defendant’s desire to proceed with Blankenship’s representation because a ‘higher up’ had sent Blankenship did not suggest an inability to understand the proceedings. On the contrary, it reflected defendant’s desire to accept Blankenship as his attorney and thus defendant’s ability to assist in his defense. Simply because, as defendant characterizes it, his comment indicated ‘a belief that his volunteer attorney was a gift from God,’ it does not follow that he was not competent to understand the proceedings.”
Despite declining to make several pre-trial motions, Blankenship offered as his reasoning a belief that the motions would have been frivolous as they would have been denied, and to file them would have telegraphed his trial strategy to the prosecution.
Thierbach accepted this as a valid decision for the lawyer to have made and allowed him to finish the trial. Chin noted that this finding, combined with Woodruff’s continued insistence that Blankenship represent him, rendered the judge’s ruling reasonable.
The justice continued:
“Moreover, it is evident from the record that Blankenship never relinquished his responsibility to represent defendant and instead actively litigated issues and examined witnesses on defendant’s behalf throughout the trial.…Blankenship’s actions throughout the trial reflected his stated strategy of presenting this case as a Riverside community issue involving minorities and law enforcement.”
Blankenship challenged the dismissal of a prospective juror—identified in the opinion as D.K.—during jury selection, alleging that the prosecution moved for the dismissal based on the prospective juror’s race. Both the venireman and the defendant are African-American.
Thierbach dismissed this argument, but instead dismissed the prospective juror based on his opinion on the death penalty.
In the juror questionnaire, the man had indicated that he was strongly opposed to the death penalty, and that terminating a life was a choice “only God can make.” Elsewhere in the questionnaire, he indicated that notwithstanding his beliefs he was willing to apply the law based on the facts of the case.
“The parties could have, and should have, examined D.K.’s responses further through voir dire. As the trial court noted in its initial decision to deny the challenge for cause, D.K.’s response that he would follow the law ‘need[ed] to be explored’ and there was nothing to be lost by questioning him in voir dire.”
Because the man had been improperly dismissed, Chin noted, a reversal of the penalty verdict was required.
The case is People v. Woodruff, 2018 S.O.S. 3549.
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