SAN FRANCISCO — In a case expected to bring forth a ruling on whether resident aliens should be allowed to sit as jurors, the state Supreme Court Monday sidestepped that question and found other grounds to reverse the conviction of a man who murdered his wife, young son and niece seven years ago.
The case, which was before the court for 3 1/2 years, drew attention because the attorney general's office earlier this month called on the justices to speed up their decision, pointing out that a retrial would become difficult, if not impossible, because the crime occurred so long ago. That view was echoed in Monday's dissenting opinion.
Led by Justice Cruz Reynoso, the majority gave no reason for not deciding the alien juror issue. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the state Supreme Court had said in previous cases that non-citizens should not be allowed on juries.
The state high court agreed to hear the most recent case in 1981. In briefs, several groups, including the American GI Forum and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called for a decision allowing aliens to sit on juries. By accepting their friend-of-the-court briefs and by focusing on the alien juror question during oral arguments in December, 1982, the court signaled an interest in the issue.
In a press release issued after it accepted the case, the court said the main issue was whether aliens could serve as jurors. Defense lawyers had argued that Ralph Terry Coleman of Sacramento was denied a fair trial, in part because aliens were excluded from the jury. Coleman is a U.S. citizen.
Only Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, joined by Justice Allen Broussard, advocated impaneling alien jurors. Both concurred with the majority in reversing the conviction on other grounds.
Reynoso, joined by Justices Otto Kaus and Broussard, ordered Coleman's conviction reversed, because the prosecutor had been allowed to introduce into evidence several letters written by the defendant's wife in which she expressed the fear that he was going to kill her.
In the letters, written in 1976 and 1977, the wife said Coleman had threatened to kill her and the family.
Reynoso concluded that the letters were too inflamatory to be introduced and had denied Coleman a fair trial.
The trial judge allowed the letters to be introduced as evidence after several psychiatrists used them to reach the conclusion that Coleman was insane. The prosecutor sought to discredit the psychiatric testimony by letting the jury see the letters.
Coleman killed his wife with a shotgun in March, 1978, after an argument in which he accused her of paying one $30 bill twice. He then went to his children's room and shot and killed his 9-year-old son and teen-age niece. He fired at his teen-age daughter, but missed. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In a dissent, Justice Stanley Mosk, joined by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Paul Teilh, who was sitting by temporary assignment, wrote that Bird's proposal to allow aliens on juries "requires little comment."
Mosk criticized the majority for reversing the conviction, saying that the court should have instead reduced the crimes from first-degree murder to second-degree murder and ordered a new sentencing.
"To require a retrial after this long passage of time casts an unfair burden on the memories of witnesses and on both the prosecution and defense," Mosk wrote.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Steve White, head of the criminal division, said the long delay was particularly puzzling, because the court did not decide the key issue but based its reversal on a mistake by the trial judge. The ruling did not amount to a "policy decision" or change in the law, White said.