Friday, July 18, 2003
High Court Rejects Jury Selection Bias Claim, Upholds Death Sentence
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a Northern California man convicted of killing an elderly woman after her car stalled on her way to the Sacramento Airport.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the court, rejected Ralph Yeoman’s claims of racial bias in the selection of jurors for his Sacramento Superior Court trial.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Rothwell Mason sentenced Yeoman, from the Placer County community of Sheridan, to die for the murder of 73-year-old Doris Horrell.
Jurors rendered a death penalty verdict following a trial in which a friend of the defendant testified that Yeoman had admitted befriending the elderly Citrus Heights resident, then shooting her and stealing her papers and property. Investigators, alerted by Yeoman’s friend three days after the shooting, recovered some of the stolen items at the friend’s home.
Horrell apparently accepted a ride from Yeoman, who shot her six times in the head with a .22-caliber pistol. Police found her body in an open field near Arco Arena while setting up flares to direct traffic coming out of a Sacramento Kings basketball game.
Prosecutors urged the death penalty, citing the circumstances of the murder and Yeoman’s long record of criminal violence.
He had been convicted of three felonies, including the robbery of an elderly neighbor, whose throat was slit, and the molestation of his two stepchildren. The prosecution also presented evidence that Yeoman committed two crimes that had been unsolved prior to his being arrested for the Horrell murder—the robbery and attempted kidnapping of a female motorist, and a drug-related murder.
Jurors were also told that Yeoman had admitted, at an Army court-martial 20 years earlier, that he had raped the wife of a friend while her husband was in Vietnam.
Yeoman’s counsel argued on appeal that four African Americans had been improperly removed from the jury venire by way of peremptory challenges, leaving 11 whites among the 12 persons empaneled to try the case.
But Werdegar agreed with the trial judge, who held that the defense had failed to make a prima facie showing of bias with respect to three of the four, and that the prosecution had successfully rebutted the defense’s prima facie showing with respect to the fourth.
It is not enough, the justice explained, for defense lawyers to simply identify those challenged jurors who belong to a particular racial group. The required showing “entails, at the least, making as complete a record as feasible of the relevant circumstances, establishing that the excluded persons belong to a cognizable group, and showing that the other party has more likely than not exercised its peremptory challenges because of group association rather than any specific bias,” she wrote.
Absent such a showing, the challenge will be deemed race- and gender-neutral if there is any possible ground on which an unbiased prosecutor could have deemed the juror unacceptable, Werdegar explained.
That was the case with the three prospective jurors as to whom the trial judge found there to be no showing of bias, the justice said.
She noted that one of the three wrote on her questionnaire that she “would not like to sit as a juror,” “cannot judge another,” and felt “frustrated” that “the Supreme Court is far to the right.” Another said she had opposed the reinstatement of the death penalty and thought that the crime problem was mostly due to the division of society into “haves and have nots.”
And the third, Werdegar noted, did not respond to several questions on her questionnaire form regarding the death penalty.
Nor, the justice went on to say, was there any defect in the trial judge’s ruling that prosecutors had legitimately excused the fourth black venire member, a corrections officer. Assuming that Mason was correct that there was a prima facie showing of bias, Werdegar concluded, the prosecutor rebutted the showing by explaining that the man was more ambivalent in his support of the death penalty than the unchallenged jurors.
The case is People v. Yeoman, 03 S.O.S. 3744.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company