Thursday, May 29, 2003
Conviction in Spouse Killing Overturned, Prosecutor’s Remarks Cited
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A prosecutor’s comments to the jury on the fact that two defendants who knew each other remained silent when placed in the same police car violated the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, necessitating a new trial, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Seven Tuesday overturned the convictions, and life-without-parole sentences, of Rebecca Salcedo Cleland and her cousin, Jose Quesada, for the murder of Cleland’s husband.
The panel upheld the conviction and sentence of Quesada’s brother, Alvaro. His attorney said he would seek review in the state Supreme Court, arguing that since the three were charged and tried together as co-conspirators, the violation of the co-defendants’ constitutional rights tainted the case against his client as well.
Cleland and her two cousins were convicted in June 2000 of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, along with the special circumstance allegations of murder for financial gain and murder while lying in wait.
The charges stemmed from the July 26, 1997, slaying of TRW software engineer Bruce Cleland, who was shot to death after he and his estranged wife went to dinner to try to work out their differences.
The two secretly married in an October 1996 civil ceremony, since Rebecca Cleland said she would not buy a house with Bruce Cleland until they were married, and in a church wedding in January 1997, according to prosecution witnesses.
Cleland’s friends and acquaintances said she told them before and after the church wedding that she did not love her husband, did not want to marry him, had married him for his money and planned to divorce him quickly to get financial security.
Police said Bruce Cleland was shot as he sat in the passenger seat of his Toyota 4Runner and then shot repeatedly in the head as he tried to escape.
Rebecca Cleland was arrested in February 1998, seven months after she claimed she stopped the vehicle because she noticed a warning light was on, went to close the hatch, and was knocked unconscious. She said she awoke to find her husband lying in a pool of blood across the street from where the vehicle was parked.
Police said the Whittier woman masterminded the murder of her husband, and involved her cousins in the crime. She had taken out an insurance policy on her husband, whom she married in January 1997, and solicited people to kill him, witnesses testified.
Prosecutors said Jose Quesada was the gunman and his brother the getaway driver.
There was testimony that Cleland called Alvaro Quesada several times, with some of those calls placing him and the cell phone close to where Cleland’s husband was killed.
Following her arrest, she was placed in a patrol car and driven to a parking lot near the 605 Freeway. Jose Quesada was arrested separately, then driven to the same parking lot, where he was moved to the same car and left alone with her for 15 minutes while detectives recorded their conversation, which consisted of nothing but an initial greeting by Quesada.
A detective later asked Quesada if he knew the person with whom he had been sitting in the patrol car. The detective testified that Quesada said “he didn’t know who it was,” but later said that the response was “I’ve never seen her before.”
Another detective said he asked Cleland who the man was, and she replied it was her cousin.
Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss said the introduction of Quesada’s denial that he knew Cleland violated his Fifth Amendment rights, since he had not been given Miranda warnings. The jurist rejected the prosecution’s claim that the police were asking a routine identification question, such as suspects may be asked at time of booking.
“Asking him to identify Cleland had no legitimate purpose; it was simply a technique intended to elicit an incriminating statement,” Perluss wrote.
Similarly, the jurist said, the use of the defendants’ post-arrest silence as affirmative evidence of their guilt violated their rights not to be witnesses against themselves. And the violation was compounded, the presiding justice wrote, by the comments of the prosecutor.
Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum told the jury that the defendants’ silence in the police car “speaks volumes.”
The prosecutor elaborated:
“They thought they had gotten away with it. All of a sudden, defendant Jose Quesada and defendant Rebecca Cleland are sitting in the back of a police car with each other and they are looking at each other but they are not saying a word.”
In rebuttal, the prosecutor insisted there was “no innocent explanation” for their silence.
The prosecution’s case, Perluss said, was not so strong that the constitutional error could be considered harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The case against Cleland “was entirely circumstantial,” he commented.
The appellate panel found that the evidence against Jose Quesada was “somewhat stronger,” but since the court must “evaluate not only the prejudicial effect of the prosecutor’s comments on his post-arrest silence, but also the erroneous admission of his highly incriminating denial of knowing Cleland,” his conviction also had to be reversed, the presiding justice said.
Alvaro Quesada’s court-appointed attorney, Peter Leeming of Santa Cruz, said it was “hard to imagine that such prejudicial error wouldn’t have an effect on the third defendant.” He also questioned whether there was enough evidence of his client’s involvement to support a conviction.
The case is People v. Cleland, 03 S.O.S. 2652.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company