Tuesday, January 28, 2003
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence, Says Palmdale Lawyer Not Ineffective
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A veteran Antelope Valley criminal defense lawyer did not render ineffective assistance to a defendant in a capital case by advising him to waive trial by jury, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
William A. Clark, criminal practitioner from Palmdale, who three years ago mounted a unsuccessful election challenge to then Antelope Municipal Court Judge Pamela Rogers, made a reasonable choice to waive a jury and have then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Margaret Grignon, now a Court of Appeal justice, try James Robert Scott for the murder of Wanda Jensen.
The justices rejected a habeas corpus petition by Scott, whose direct appeal they turned down six years ago.
Scott was convicted of first degree murder by Grignon in 1989. She found that Jensen was killed in the course of rape and burglary, and that Scott intended to kill Jensen and used a deadly weapon.
The prosecution presented evidence that Scott had entered Jensen’s Palmdale apartment, threatened her with a screwdriver and threatened to harm her five-year-old daughter, then hit her with a baseball bat, raped, beat and choked her, then set her on fire before leaving. She initially survived, but died of her burns 10 months after the 1986 fire.
Scott confessed twice. At times during his confessions, however, he assumed the persona of “Tony,” who claimed to have taken over Scott’s body and said he had to destroy Jensen. He signed one of the confessions “Tony Adman,” but then changed it to his real name, Justice Ming Chin explained in his opinion for the court.
At trial, Scott’s defense was that Jensen’s death was a result of medical malpractice, but for which she would have survived.
After his conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal, Scott—through court-appointed counsel, John Clark of Palo Alto—filed a petition for habeas corpus. He claimed that, among other things, Clark rendered deficient performance by not relying on a mental health or alibi defense, and by advising him to waive a jury trial.
The high court granted an evidentiary hearing on the petition and appointed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard Schwab as referee.
Schwab, after hearing from a number of witnesses, including William Clark, agreed that the trial lawyer did a “minimal” job of investigation as to mental health issues, either as a defense or as mitigation in the penalty phase. But Schwab also found that Clark had been hampered by his own client’s reluctance to have friends and family members testify about his mental state, and that there was no significant credible evidence that would have made a mental health defense successful as to either guilt or penalty.
As to the jury waiver, Schwab found that it was a reasonable choice, because the most viable defense was the medical malpractice claim. Clark was not deficient in reasoning that Grignon was more likely to give him a better result than a jury on that issue, since Antelope Valley juries tend to be conservative and Grignon, as the wife and daughter-in-law of physicians, would be expected to understand the testimony that would be presented by the defense, Schwab said.
Chin agreed with Schwab on those issues, saying his findings were supported by the testimony at the reference hearing. He also rejected the contention that an alibi defense should have been considered, agreeing with Schwab that the friends and family members who said at the reference hearing that they could have provided Scott with an alibi appeared to be creating a post-death sentence fabrication.
Five of his colleagues concurred in Chin’s opinion. Justice Joyce L. Kennard concurred separately.
Kennard said that Clark should have been more diligent in seeking mental health testimony, regardless of his client’s lack of cooperation, and added that the reasonableness of the jury waiver was a “close and difficult issue.” But she agreed that there was no prejudice.
The case is In re Scott, 03 S.O.S. 426.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company