Tuesday, April 22, 2003
S.C. Rejects Latest Challenges to California’s Death Penalty Law
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed in a San Bernardino County case, rejecting defense contentions that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling undermines California’s death penalty law.
The justices upheld the sentence and conviction of Alfredo Prieto, holding that none of the procedures employed at his trial violated the U.S. Constitution.
Prieto was sentenced to death by San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Joseph E. Johnston for the 1990 murder of Yvette Woodruff. Prosecutors said Woodruff and two other women were attacked by Prieto and three other men; Woodruff died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Prieto was convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances of robbery, kidnapping and rape. He was also convicted of the attempted murder of the other two women, two counts of attempted robbery, two counts of robbery, three counts of kidnapping for robbery, three counts of forcible rape, and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The jury found that Prieto personally used a handgun to commit all of the crimes except Woodruff’s murder, and that his co-defendants were armed during the commission of all of the crimes.
Prosecutors linked Prieto to the crimes with the testimony of the surviving victims. A search of Prieto’s apartment produced keys to the car of one of the surviving victims.
The defense case consisted of an alibi supplied by the defendant’s girlfriend.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors portrayed Prieto as a violent man. His ex-wife testified that he once threw their child at her from a distance of three or four feet, and had hit her and slapped her and forced her into sex, and once pointed a gun at her head.
Two other witnesses linked Prieto to a drive-by shooting more than a decade earlier, while another witness testified that Prieto had pointed a gun at her and other members of her family five days after the Woodruff shooting.
The defense case in the penalty phase included testimony from family members that defendant had been a kind person, at least until he met his ex-wife, but had a difficult family life and a violent upbringing in war-torn El Salvador.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, writing for the high court, rejected defense claims that Ring v. Arizona (2002) 122 S.Ct. 2428, renders several aspects of California’s death penalty law unconstitutional.
The Ring court held that the constitutional right to trial by jury is violated when a judge sentences a defendant to death based on facts not found by the jury. It overturned Arizona’s procedure of having the judge, rather than the jury, conduct the penalty phase of the trial, determine the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and decide on the sentence.
Prieto’s appellate lawyers, Andrew Rubin and Terrence Scott of Los Angeles, argued that California law violates Ring by allowing a jury to sentence a defendant to death without finding beyond a reasonable doubt that there are aggravating circumstances and that they outweigh those in mitigation, and because the aggravating-circumstance findings need not be unanimous.
Brown disagreed, explaining that in California, unlike under the Arizona law, there is no requirement of further factual findings once the defendant has been convicted of a capital offense. The determination of whether the defendant convicted of special-circumstances murder should be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment, Brown explained, is a “moral and normative” determination in which jurors may weigh the specific factors as they choose, rather than a fact-finding process like the Arizona death penalty phase.
The case is People v. Prieto, 03 S.O.S. 1952.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company