Friday, May 10, 2002
S.C. Upholds Death Penalty for Sacramento Man in Roommate’s Killing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Sacramento man who spent most of his adult life in prison before he killed his roommate at a group living facility had his death sentence affirmed yesterday by the state Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision, the justices agreed with Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kenneth G. Peterson that Herbert Koontz’s “cold blooded” killing of George Martinez, 40, and “staggering” history of criminal violence warranted the maximum sentence.
A jury found Koontz guilty of Martinez’s murder, plus a robbery special circumstance, rejecting the defendant’s claim of self-defense. He was also convicted of kidnapping for robbery, and taking a vehicle, and was convicted of recidivist petty theft for taking merchandise from a downtown Sacramento Woolworth’s a month before the shooting.
Koontz, 59 years old when he was sentenced in 1993, fired his court-appointed defense counsel after the preliminary hearing and acted as his own lawyer in the six-week trial, rejecting the judge’s offer to appoint advisory counsel.
Jurors told the Sacramento Bee at the time that Koontz had done himself little good by playing lawyer, but Koontz disagreed. “I’m learning to be a lawyer and it feels kind of good,” Koontz told the newspaper. “This is what is keeping me living.”
He also predicted he would be dead before his appeals ran out. He suffered his first felony conviction in 1953 and has been incarcerated, in 11 different stretches, for all but about seven years since.
He was paroled from his previous conviction, for sexual assault in 1983, about nine months before shooting Martinez. He was living at a Sacramento home operated by the Volunteers of America, mostly for drug addicts and alcoholics, and shared a two-bedroom apartment with Martinez.
A security monitor at the home, McLean Currie, testified that the two men had an argument. Koontz, he said, demanded Martinez’s car keys, and when Martinez wouldn’t hand them over, shot him in the abdomen and exclaimed that Martinez was a “G-d Mexican” who had “been bugging” him as long as he had lived in the home.
Currie said he tried to call for help, but Koontz threatened him and pulled the phone out of the wall. Koontz forced Currie, at gunpoint, to retrieve Martinez’s car keys from the dying man’s coat, then to go outside and start the car.
Another resident came by and called for help, while Koontz drove off.
Prosecution witnesses testified Martinez had no weapon, was not known for violence, and was not using drugs or alcohol at the time he was shot. Koontz claimed that Martinez was drinking and had threatened him with a knife following an argument about heating in their apartment; it was Currie, he testified, who told him to take Martinez’s car.
He claimed he was on his way to Riverside to talk to a lawyer he knew when he was stopped by the California Highway Patrol, apparently driving drunk, in Kern County about 12 hours after the shooting.
Koontz’s appellate lawyer, Richard Power of Shingle Springs in El Dorado County, said Peterson should not have allowed Koontz to represent himself without first holding a competency hearing. He cited the comments of the judge who granted the defendant’s motion for self-representation following the preliminary hearing, who suggested to Koontz that he wasn’t “competent to represent” himself.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the high court, said it was clear from the context that the judge was referring to competency in the sense of legal, rather than mental, ability. Koontz, she said, appeared to be well aware of his surroundings and the implications of his decision, and felt he could present his self-defense claim better than a lawyer could.
She noted that he told the judge he had “specialized in appeals” as a jailhouse lawyer at Folsom Prison, and that he was “literate, not a dummy.”
The justice acknowledged that he had made some eyebrow-raising claims, asserting that he had an associate of arts degree and had attended UC Davis. “But a proclivity to boast or exaggerate, a tendency to digress in argument, a shaky grasp of the legal concept of relevancy, even a certain tangentiality in speech patterns does not necessarily mean that a defendant lacks a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings, the basic criterion for competency,” Werdegar wrote.
The justice went on to conclude that the evidence as a whole supported the trial judge’s decision to impose the death penalty.
Werdegar agreed that Koontz showed no remorse for his crime, and showed himself to be “callous and without conscience” in preventing Currie from summoning help, even though it was unlikely Martinez would have survived in any event.
She also noted that he Koontz has nine prior convictions for offenses involving weapons. While his appellate counsel argued on appeal that his belief Martinez had a knife and his decision to represent himself indicate Koontz was delusional, and that his mental state should therefore have been treated as a mitigating factor, Werdegar said, those claims seem “simply to have been his unsuccessful effort to persuade the court and jury of a state of facts (a need to defend against a knife attack by the victim) that did not exist.”
Koontz presented no evidence of mental illness, she noted.
The case is People v. Koontz, 02 S.O.S. 2242.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company