Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence, Says Judge Used Wrong Standard
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday overturned a Riverside County death sentence, saying a trial judge who was called in to reconsider the penalty applied the wrong standard.
The justices unanimously sent the case of Michael Ray Burgener back to the Superior Court for resentencing on the basis of the trial record.
The case is unusual in that Burgener had previously succeeded in having the jury’s death penalty verdict overturned by the trial judge, J. William Mortland of the Riverside Superior Court. Prosecutors, however, had succeeded in having Mortland’s decision thrown out by the Court of Appeal on the ground that the judge had considered improper factors in granting the automatic motion to modify the verdict.
Burgener was convicted of the 1980 robbery-murder of a grocery clerk. About $50 was taken in the robbery.
He presented mental health evidence in mitigation, and also said he had taken to reading the Bible and had been a good person in prison.
By the time the Court of Appeal overturned the modification of the verdict, however, Mortland had retired. The presiding judge inquired as to whether Mortland was available to hear the resentencing on assignment, but the judge declined due to ill health, and the matter was reassigned to Judge Ronald Heuman.
Heumann found that the aggravating factors sufficiently outweighed the mitigation to support the death penalty verdict.
Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the high court, said the judge erred by applying a “deferential” standard of review. On remand, he said, Heumann must act as a 13th juror, weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances anew.
The case is People v. Burgener, 03 S.O.S. 407.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company