Defense and prosecution attorneys agree that Tuesday's California Supreme Court ruling making it easier to impose the death penalty will have a significant and immediate impact on at least 15 murder cases in Orange County, but there was little agreement on how the high court's decision will affect the outcome of these cases.
The court, now dominated by conservative justices appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, decided that it was not necessary to prove that a defendant intended to kill his victim in order to impose the death penalty. The 6-1 ruling overturned a major capital-punishment decision issued under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
The high court decision will have a substantial impact on many pending Orange County cases, according Joel W. Baruch, a well-known defense attorney.
"There are a lot of intent-to-kill cases," Baruch said. "I have three of them myself."
"It's going to have a tremendous effect on the system," said James G. Enright, chief deputy district attorney. "It's going to have a great impact across the state," he said, adding that it placed the state in line with sentencing standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are five Orange County death penalty cases now on appeal and an additional "10 cases in the system that will be affected" by Tuesday's decision, according to Enright. "We've been looking at them since we heard about it," he said.
"It's just great," said Bryan Brown, supervising deputy district attorney in charge of homicide cases. "What else can we say?"
Several cases to be heard this week may be affected by the decision.
Among the first may come today in the case of convicted robber and murderer Marcelino Ramos, one of Baruch's clients.
Ramos was convicted of shooting two fast-food clerks at point-blank range in a 1979 robbery in Santa Ana. At his trial, Ramos testified that he did not intend to kill his two victims but merely meant to graze them after herding them into a walk-in cooler and making them kneel and bow their heads. One Taco Bell clerk died.
In a controversial 1983 decision, Carlos vs. Superior Court, the Bird Court required an intent finding before the death penalty could be imposed in felony murder cases.
That ruling forced penalty retrials in 13 subsequent capital cases--and state prosecutors warned that death judgments in at least 29 other pending cases were likely to be reversed unless the 1983 ruling was overturned.
Because of the Carlos decision, the Ramos death sentence was overturned and a rehearing was ordered on the penalty phase. Coincidentally, those proceedings had been scheduled to begin today to determine whether he had an intent to kill.
Now, however, Ramos' intent may not be a determining factor when jurors decide whether he goes to prison for life without parole or gets the death penalty.
Prosecutors will probably argue that they no longer must prove intent, citing Tuesday's high court ruling, Baruch predicted.
For his part, Bryan predicted that in other appeals cases defense attorneys will argue in penalty rehearing that the court's ruling imposes a new standard, in effect changing the rules after the game has begun. The deputy district attorney said he hopes the court will not accept that reasoning.
Baruch said he does not believe prosecutors will succeed in using the new standard in the Ramos case, in part because Tuesday's decision does not become final and binding until 30 days have passed.
"We believe the ruling is effective immediately--forthwith," he said, " because the court is just interpeting existing law."
Under Tuesday's ruling, however, it will still be necessary to prove intent to kill on the part of a defendant in a murder case who did not commit the murder.
Times staff writer John Spano contributed to this story.