Juries sentenced them to death years ago. But in 1986, four men on death row will return to Orange County to face new trials.
The state Supreme Court this year reversed the death verdicts against two of them. Rodney James Alcala was convicted of killing a 12-year-old girl, and Marcelinos Ramos shot two Taco Bell employees in the head after telling them to pray.
The other two men won reversals from Superior Court judges based on new state Supreme Court decisions. Willie Wisely killed his stepfather by rigging a truck cab to fall on him. Thomas F. Edwards shot a child to death as she and a friend were walking in the mountains.
Alcala will get a complete new trial. The other three will face only new penalty trials, where juries will decide between death and life without parole.
Critical of Bird
"It's frustrating," said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright. "It's really needless to have to go through this again, certainly in the Alcala and Ramos cases. But that's the (Chief Justice) Rose (Elizabeth) Bird court for you."
Enright also said he expects that the prosecutor's office will have to retry death row inmates John Galen Davenport and William Payton. Their cases are now 4 years old, the oldest Orange County death cases pending before the Supreme Court.
"If we have to, we'll retry every one the Supreme Court sends back," Enright said. "It's difficult. You have to round up all your witnesses again and you have to put your victims' families through the whole thing all over. But you do it because the death penalty is the only just verdict for these guys."
Santa Ana attorney Keith Monroe, who represented Alcala and Wisely, has a different view.
"To say it's not right to have to retry cases is like calling for the abolition of the appellate process," Monroe said. "This is the way our system is supposed to work. It's the only way to assure a fair trial for everyone."
With the exception of the case of Randy Kraft, who is charged with 16 murders, probably no other case will gain as much attention next year as Rodney Alcala's.
Alcala, now 41, was convicted of kidnaping and killing Robin Samsoe, 12, of Huntington Beach in June, 1979. Her decomposed body was found 12 days later in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, north of Arcadia.
The state Supreme Court agreed with Monroe that the jury was unfairly influenced when prosecutors were allowed to show that Alcala had a history of picking up young girls and sexually attacking them.
The Supreme Court called the evidence of Alcala's past "highly prejudicial."
Monroe has said, "If you were to ask me whether Rodney is capable of a crime like this, my heavens, yes. It would not surprise me at all to learn that Rodney killed that little girl. But did the evidence at the first trial prove that he did it? I say no."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Goethals has to worry first about convicting Alcala of murder and then sending him back to death row. One inmate who testified that Alcala confessed in jail later recanted his testimony. Another inmate said Alcala confessed to kidnaping (necessary for a death verdict), but Goethals won't say whether he will testify again.
"Even if we convince the jury he is guilty of murder, we have to convince them there were special circumstances involved," Goethals said. "If we are successful in that, I don't think it will be too tough, considering Alcala's past, to convince a jury he should get the death penalty again."
Goethals said he expects the trial, scheduled for March 3, to last at least three months. He expects to call 50 to 75 witnesses.
Alcala's case may be the biggest, but prosecutors are just as angry about having to retry Ramos, who they say committed the most cold-blooded execution they have ever seen.
On June 3, 1979, Ramos, now 28, and a partner robbed a Taco Bell in Santa Ana. According to witnesses, Ramos held a gun to the heads of two employees, told them, "Say your prayers," and then shot them.
One of the employees, 20-year-old Katherine Parrott, died immediately. The other, Kevin Pickrell, then 18, survived with a head wound and testified against Ramos.
The state Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ruled that the trial judge should not have instructed the jury that if they gave Ramos life without parole instead of death, the governor could commute his sentence. The jury instruction was part of the Briggs amendment on the death penalty passed by the voters in 1978. Critics of the jury instruction say it unfairly influences jurors to choose a death verdict. Jurors are not told that the governor has the power to commute a death sentence, too.
The Supreme Court also has ruled that to issue a death verdict, a jury must find that the defendant intended to kill.
"You don't tell your victims to say their prayers, then put a gun to their heads and pull the trigger unless you mean to kill them," Deputy Dist. Atty. Pat Geary said. "But we'll have to make sure the jury finds intent to satisfy the Supreme Court."