Tuesday, January 29, 2002
S.C. Says Death Sentence Not Excessive in Stabbing Murder of Woman
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed on a Pacific Grove resident in the 1989 murder of his upstairs neighbor.
The justices rejected the argument that the death penalty was excessive for Kristin William Hughes, convicted of stabbing, robbing, and sodomizing Kim Hickman, who lived near Hughes and worked as a masseuse in Monterey.
“Even though defendant may not be among the most heinous of murderers and his crimes may not be as abominable as some of the others we have reviewed, based upon the facts presented we cannot conclude that the sentence he received ‘is disproportionate to defendant’s personal responsibility and moral guilt,’ ” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.
Hughes, a construction laborer, was tied to the killing by bloodstains on his jacket, fingerprints and a bloody thumbprint found at the crime scene, and on a check that had been given to Hickman by a customer on the morning of her death. Hughes was also identified as the person who cashed that check—which had been altered—at a nearby grocery store where Hughes had once worked.
Police searched Hughes’ apartment, with his roommate’s consent, and found tennis shoes with a pattern matching prints found at the crime scene and a cloth bag containing credit cards belonging to two other people. One of the shoes had blood on it, matching Hickman’s type and not Hughes,’ an expert testified.
A cloth bag—similar to the one found in the apartment and containing Hickman’s cashless wallet, credit cards, and checkbook—was found on the beach at Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove two weeks after the murder. Jurors returned a death verdict after a little over five hours of deliberation.
On appeal, the high court rejected a number of defense objections to instructions given the jury by Judge William Wunderlich, since elevated to the Sixth District Court of Appeal.
The defense argued that Wunderlich should have given sua sponte jury instructions on voluntary intoxication as negating premeditation and the mental states necessary for robbery, burglary, and sodomy as special circumstances.
A 1991 decision holding that there is no duty to instruct on the court’s own motion as to intoxication negating premeditation applies to cases where the crime was allegedly committed before that case was decided, George said. Another prior ruling precludes the claim with regard to the special-circumstance allegations, the chief justice added.
The trial judge did err, George concluded, by failing to define rape after instructing the jury that Hughes could be found guilty of burglary if he entered the victim’s apartment with intent to commit theft, sodomy, or rape.
The error was harmless, however, the chief justice said, because there was no reasonable doubt that Hughes intended to commit a felony. The only way the lack of a definition of rape would have been prejudicial, George reasoned, was if jurors believed that Hughes entered intending only to ask for sex, but they mistakenly thought that entry with intent to engage in consensual intercourse constitutes burglary—an impossible scenario, the chief justice said.
Wunderlich made an error in the penalty phase instructions, the chief justice acknowledged, when he explained that if they found Hughes possessed a sharpened instrument in jail, it was a crime of violence that could be considered in determining whether to impose the death penalty.
The instruction, based on Penal Code Sec. 4502, was erroneous because at the time the shank was found, the statute applied only to prisons and not to jails, George said. But the chief justice also said the error was harmless.
The instruction would have been correct, George explained, if the shank had been described as a deadly weapon—whose possession would have been a crime under Sec. 4574—rather than as a sharp instrument.
The chief justice elaborated:
“It is quite unlikely that the jury would find the object to be a sharpened instrument but not a deadly weapon. But if the jury made that improbable finding, thus minimizing the seriousness of the evidence, it is also quite unlikely that it would then consider the evidence to be so important as to control, or even have a significant impact upon, the penalty determination. The combination of these circumstances…convinces us that the error was harmless.”
The case is People v. Hughes, 02 S.O.S. 411.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company