Monday, January 27, 2003
Ninth Circuit Says Lawyer Ineffective, Orders New Trial On Penalty, but Not Guilt, for Garden Grove Man
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A former Garden Grove upholsterer sentenced to death in 1984 for killing two teenage girls he took to the desert on the ruse of hiring them as models is entitled to a new penalty trial because he received an inadequate defense, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins acknowledged that George Peters had a difficult time defending Fred Beere Douglas, who insisted he did not want a mental health defense, that he didn’t kill the girls, and that he had an alibi.
But Douglas’ lack of cooperation “does not...as the State would have it, absolve Peters of all responsibility for further investigation into a mental health defense,” Hawkins explained. Peters, the judge said, overlooked potentially helpful information about Douglas’ mental state that could readily be obtained without the defendant’s cooperation.
Peters could not be reached Friday for comment.
Douglas was sentenced to death in 1985 for the strangulation deaths three years earlier of Margaret Kreuger and Beth Jones, two Anaheim roommates whose bones were found in an isolated part of Anza Borrego State Park in southeastern San Diego County.
The primary witness against Douglas was Richard Hernandez, an employee at Douglas’ shop. Hernandez said he had gone to the desert with Douglas and the girls but was unaware of Douglas’ plans when he asked the girls to pose nude while he tied them up.
When he realized what was happening, he testified, he tried to stop it but was too drunk to prevent Douglas from sexually assaulting the girls and then killing them. Hernandez admitted fleeing to Canada with Douglas immediately after the murders.
They were caught nearly two years later—Douglas in North Las Vegas, Nev., and Hernandez in Mexico. Hernandez was granted immunity in exchange for testimony.
Douglas has become known as a prolific letter writer, continuing to protest his innocence and claim he received a “railroad murder trial.” He referred to American judges in one letter to a reporter as “money-sucking, parasitical leeches that don’t give a damn about a man’s complete innocence.”
In concluding that Douglas is entitled to a new penalty trial, Hawkins said Peters should have used a psychologist who examined Douglas in connection with a 1977 case and found that he suffered from brain damage. Douglas was charged in the earlier case with attempted murder and other crimes arising from an alleged plan to make a “snuff film,” but the case ended with a no-contest plea to a criminal solicitation charge after jurors deadlocked.
Peters, testifying at the habeas corpus hearing before U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew of the Central District of California, admitted that he had overlooked the order appointing the psychologist when he reviewed the file of the earlier case, and that he “would have loved to have” had the benefit of the mental health professional’s work at the time of Douglas’ trial.
Hawkins, however, rejected the contention that the ineffective assistance impacted the guilty verdict. There was overwhelming evidence that Douglas committed the murders, and did so with premeditation and deliberation, the appellate jurist concluded.
Hawkins rejected the argument that Hernandez’s testimony was tainted as a result of beatings and death threats he claimed to have received from his Mexican jailers before he signed a statement and was returned to California to testify. There was nothing in the immunity agreement that prevented him from repudiating the statement, as long as he testified truthfully, Hawkins reasoned, noting that Hernandez acknowledged that he was no longer in fear once he was taken across the border and delivered to American officers.
Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder and Judge William A. Fletcher concurred in the opinion.
The appeal was argued in the Ninth Circuit by Mark A. Borenstein of Santa Monica’s Shapiro, Borenstein & Dupont for Douglas and Deputy Attorney General Pat Zaharopoulos for the state.
The case is Douglas v. Woodford, 01-99004.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company