Friday, May 31, 2002
State Supreme Court Rules in Death Penalty Case:
Denial of Jury’s Request to Speak to Defendant Not Reversible Error
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld two death sentences, including one against a man whose first penalty phase trial ended in a hung jury after the judge declined the jury’s request to address the defendant.
The justices rejected Michael Corey Slaughter’s argument that the unusual request by his first penalty jury should result in a life sentence. Slaughter said he should be spared death for two drug-related killings in Modesto because the jury appeared to be considering life without parole, but only if it had a chance to speak with Slaughter before reaching a verdict.
The request came in the form of a note to Stanislaus Superior Court Judge John E. Griffin Jr.
“Are we permitted to address the defendant to let him know our feelings —regardless of our decision?” the note read. “Such as: the majority feels he should die for his crimes, however, we are capable of showing him mercy by finding for life.”
Griffin instructed the jury that it would not be permitted to address anyone except the court prior to having reached a verdict. The foreperson responded that the court’s instruction meant a stalemate, with a final ballot of “nine, one and and [sic] two undecided.”
“That was basically our last hope right there,” the foreperson said.
Mistrial was declared and a second penalty jury was convened and returned a death verdict.
Chief Justice Ronald George said it was unnecessary to reach the question of whether a jury in a capital case must be permitted to address the defendant because there was insufficient evidence in the record that a different ruling by Griffin would have resulted in a life term.
“Although it is possible that the jury would have returned a verdict of life in prison without the possibility of parole had it been permitted to address the defendant, the jury did not state ‘unequivocally’ that this was its intention,” George said. “We would have to engage in speculation to conclude that the jury would have returned a certain verdict or, indeed, any verdict at all, had the jury been granted permission to address defendant.”
“The jury’s request may have been its last hope, but we do not know whether that hope would have been realized had the court granted the request.”
Justice Joyce Kennard, joined by Justice Carlos Moreno, dissented from upholding the death penalty—but not because of the jury’s request. Kennard said the prosecutor improperly cited biblical support for the death penalty in closing arguments, a move the high court has previously found to be prejudicial misconduct.
George said quotes of passages from Romans and Exodus were improper but harmless, since they were only a small part of the closing statement. He also rejected Slaughter’s assertion that it was ineffective assistance of counsel for his lawyer to have failed to object to the biblical references.
But Kennard said that in a case that was so close on a penalty verdict that the first jury deadlocked, the argument that Bible citations were short did not hold up.
“Under that logic, prosecutors may freely refer to biblical authority when making their penalty arguments to juries in capital cases, secure in the knowledge that this court will never release a resulting death judgment for this misconduct, provided only that the prosecutors also present an argument focusing on the statutory aggravating and mitigating factors,” Kennard said. “Appeals to divine authority in jury arguments in capital cases are prejudicial when jurors for whom the aggravating and mitigating factors appear closely balanced use religious considerations to resolve their doubts, as the prosecutor’s improper argument invites them to do.”
In the other case, the high court upheld a death sentence for Raymond Edward Steele, who was convicted of murdering a developmentally disabled women in 1988.
Writing for the majority, Justice Ming W. Chin said the Shasta County trial judge acted correctly in admitting into evidence Steele’s earlier conviction for a 1971 killing. Chin said the prejudicial impact of that evidence was outweighed by its probative value in showing the defendant’s intent to kill, premeditation and deliberation.
Kennard dissented, saying admission of evidence of the similar killing 17 years earlier was reversible error.
George dissented on other grounds, citing declarations by two jurors that they relied on their own professional expertise in telling other jurors that the defendant did not experience combat in Vietnam or learn how to kill at military school, and that the medical test the defendant took was unreliable.
George also objected to admission of testimony on redirect by the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy of the victim.
The cases are People v. Slaughter, 02 S.O.S. 2579, and People v. Steele, 02 S.O.S. 2592.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company