California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird was pictured Wednesday as a victim--a victim of a "poison pen" campaign against her.
At press conferences in Sacramento and Los Angeles, the chief justice's reelection team complained that written fund-raising appeals by her opponents distorted the Bird record and gave voters a false impression of her views on crime.
Bird's campaign chairman, Anthony Murray, also accused opponent groups of waging a "secret" campaign via mailings that are only selectively released to the news media. When questioned, however, Bird associates acknowledged that the chief justice herself discloses her public and political appearances only selectively to reporters.
In reviewing the direct-mail financial appeals of opponents for the last 15 months, Bird's campaign charged that "millions of poison pen letters (are) distorting the record. . . . These anti-court groups seem to be willing to say anything, no matter how untrue, as long as it sounds good enough to extract money from unsuspecting Californians."
In reponse, Lee Stitzenberger, who is managing the major anti-Bird committee, Crime Victims for Court Reform, declared: "They are confusing the issues with legal gobbledygook and trying to defend outrageous decisions by the chief justice."
Several specific cases were raised in the campaign back-and-forth. Here are glimpses of three that were emphasized:
- The Caudillo rape. This was a 1978 case stemming from long, savage assaults on a woman. Bird has been criticized over the years and again in a mailer by Crime Victims for Court Reform for ruling that "rape does not constitute great bodily injury" and, therefore, that the rapist in the case could not be sentenced to extra years in prison.
The Bird campaign responded that she was forced to follow the narrow language of the law, not make it up, when she drafted her ruling that "the Legislature intended that rape per se could not be deemed great bodily injury. . . . This court has no choice in this matter. It must accept the Legislature's intent despite any personal feelings to the contrary."
In her opinion on Caudillo, Bird wrote that the offenses committed were "outrageous, shocking and despicable" but did not constitute "great bodily injury" as defined by the relevant statute. The victim sustained two knife wounds on her neck during the attack, but Bird said the Legislature wrote the law plainly to state that great bodily injury meant "a significant or substantial physical injury" and this did not cover the facts in the Caudillo case.
Debbie Goff, spokeswoman for Crime Victims for Court Reform, said: "Again, a victim suffered a great deal, and the court, as usual, ruled for the criminal."
- The Custody of Angelia P. This is a case of a severly battered child and disputed custody rights. According to a mailing by Crime Victims for Court Reform, the chief justice found that the youngster "should be returned to the home where she had been beaten so badly that she received irremediable brain damage."
Actually, the opinion signed by Bird said Angelia P. should remain in custody of foster parents. But she found that the mother, who was not charged with abuse, should not be permanently denied visitation. The chief justice agreed that the father, who was charged with the abuse, should have his parental rights terminated.
Speaking for the Crime Victims organization, Goff acknowledged that the fund-raising mailer "was not technically correct. But, here again, is a case where . . . Bird sided against the victim."
- The case of Theodore Frank. Convicted of brutally torturing and murdering a 2-year-old girl, Frank had his death penalty reversed by the Supreme Court on a issue of evidence.
Various mailers by opposition groups highlight this case and the fact that Frank's personal diaries plainly spelled out his sadistic desires. The diaries were confiscated by authorities and used in Frank's trial, but the Supreme Court ruled that the search warrant used to obtain the diaries was far too broad and did not meet the longstanding constitutional requirement to "particularly describe the things to be seized."
According to Bird's campaign, opponent groups owed it to their would-be contributors to explain that the chief justice was not siding with Frank in this case but with the demands of the U.S. and California Constitutions.
"It is absolutely impossible for any Californian to make even the slightest judgment whether the Frank case was right or wrong without knowing what is said in the Constitution about warrants," said the Bird campaign statement.
Speaking for the other side, Goff noted that surviving family members of the murdered child are active in the campaign against Bird. "They feel the (ruling on the) diaries are a ludicrous technicality."
Murray also said there was widespread misconception that murderers in California are being set free because of a long string of death penalty reversals.
Of the 55 death penalty cases that Bird has heard and voted to reverse, not a single murderer has been freed to walk the streets, Murray said.
"Nobody goes free as a result of these decisions."
Goff replied: "Some of these cases have been around five and six years, and I'm watching the victims' families. Just when they get their lives back together again, the Supreme Court reverses the convictions and the family has to go through another retrial."