Friday, July 13, 2001
State Lawyers Urge Ninth Circuit to Revive Death Sentence in Sacramento Torture Killing
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Sacramento man convicted of shooting a woman, then allowing her to bleed to death, didn’t receive ineffective assistance of counsel and deserves to die for the crime, a lawyer for the state told a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel yesterday.
Courts owe “wide deference” to the tactical decisions of defense lawyers, Deputy Attorney General J. Robert Jibson argued, saying a district judge erred in granting Steven King Ainsworth a new penalty trial because his lawyer didn’t bring up evidence of severe childhood abuse.
The 1999 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of the Eastern District of California—who has since taken senior status—was the second that spared Ainsworth from a date with the executioner.
Ainsworth was the first person sentenced to death in Sacramento Superior Court after California reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Jurors found that Ainsworth should die for killing Seng “Nancy” Huynh, a 32-year-old key-punch operator at the state Employment Development Department.
Witnesses said Ainsworth and an accomplice abducted the victim from a downtown Sacramento parking lot, shot her in the hip, and then allowed her to bleed to death over a 24-hour period.
A 1996 order by Karlton overturning the conviction and sentence on the ground that trial counsel failed to counter the state’s theory that Ainsworth murdered Huynh by denying her access to medical care was overturned by a different Ninth Circuit panel. Those judges held that defense counsel could not have obtained sufficient forensic evidence to alter the jury’s conclusion on that issue.
In his 1999 ruling, Karlton said the case presented by the late Brian Christiansen at the 1980 penalty phase of Ainsworth’s trial “amounted in every respect to no representation at all.”
Christiansen, the judge found, failed to investigate “meaningful mitigating evidence” and made a “blundering contribution” to the prosecution case by asking the defendant’s ex-girlfriend if she had seen Ainsworth with a gun.
The prosecution then elicited testimony from the witness that Ainsworth once obtained a gun to use in an armed robbery but changed his mind when he saw police near the bank he intended to rob.
Jibson characterized that mistake as a not-uncommon instance of a witness “going sideways,” to which Judge William Fletcher retorted that “the lawyer went sideways.”
Notwithstanding that mistake, Jibson argued, Christiansen’s representation didn’t violate “prevailing professional norms” in 1980, prior to the development of an entire body of expertise on how to present mitigation defenses in capital cases.
But Judge Procter Hug Jr. repeatedly queried Jibson as to whether Christiansen overlooked “the most serious mitigating evidence” by not presenting testimony about the history of substance abuse and physical abuse in Ainsworth’s family.
Jibson argued that this may have been a reasonable tactical decision, that the defense lawyer may have felt that the evidence on this point was so weak in comparison with contrary prosecution evidence that it was better not to present it at all.
He cited a probation report from an earlier case—Ainsworth had served nine years in prison—noting a comment from the defendant’s sister denying that there was abuse in the household.
But Sacramento lawyer Quin Denvir—the federal public defender for the Eastern District—said there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Ainsworth’s childhood was far from normal, and that no competent attorney would have declined to present it to a jury merely because the prosecution might rebut it.
Ainsworth, he said, had 18 ancestors with drug or alcohol problems. His father, who had killed himself when Ainsworth was a teenager, was one of 10 ancestors who had attempted suicide—as Ainsworth had on at least six occasions—and five ancestors were seriously depressed, the defense lawyer said.
This was “a genetic load…likely to lead to what it led to in this case,” Denvir said.
In response to a question by Judge Susan Graber, Denvir conceded that the defendant had committed a serious crime and caused great suffering to the victim’s family. But the facts were not so egregious as to render the deficiencies in representation harmless as a matter of law, he argued.
“I don’t want to minimize first degree murder with special circumstances,” the veteran defense lawyer—a former state public defender whose clients have included Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski—told the panel. But the Ninth Circuit, he argued, has overturned death sentences in extremely aggravated, multiple-murder cases where the defense attorney failed to present an adequate case in mitigation.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company