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Greater Likelihood of Executions May Influence Verdicts

November 08, 1987|JERRY HICKS | Times Staff Writer

Before there is snow in the high Sierra, there will be an execution in California, Newport Beach defense attorney Ronald P. Kreber told a jury at a death-penalty trial in July.

Kreber knows now that his prediction was premature.

But he believes that jurors understood his point: With a new, more conservative alignment on the state Supreme Court, someone who is sentenced to death today can expect to be executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

Finality of Decision

"I really think that juries in the past handed down death verdicts believing it didn't matter that much because the defendant would never really be executed," Kreber said. "Now they know that, whatever they decide, it's real."

Kreber's client in July, Charles W. Keeler, was convicted of killing his stepgrandmother at her La Habra apartment. Jurors returned a verdict calling for a sentence of life in prison without parole, though none cited Kreber's prediction as a major factor in the decision.

Nonetheless, Kreber believes that the new reality of the death penalty has a subconscious effect on jurors.

Not everyone agrees. Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, who has prosecuted three men now on Death Row, counters that jurors in death-penalty cases have always taken their responsibility extremely seriously.

"I don't think jurors in the past have voted for death unless they really meant for the person to be put to death," Brown said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jill W. Roberts, who prosecuted Keeler, is skeptical of Kreber's theory. But after that first execution in the state finally takes place, jurors may be subconsciously affected, she said.

"Many jurors have mentioned Rose Bird and how much it upsets them that her court has reversed so many death sentences," Roberts said. "It's something they've been aware of."

Santa Ana defense attorney William J. Kopeny, who specializes in homicide cases, said the new court may have more impact on prosecutors than on jurors.

"Prosecutors are human. If they think that their decision to seek the death penalty in a case could actually mean that person is going to die, I think it can't help but color their decision," Kopeny said. "I think with the new court we will see fewer cases filed as death-penalty cases."

Kopeny added that trial judges may now be more likely to overrule a jury's death verdict.

No Orange County judge has done that since the new death law was enacted in 1977. Judges have argued that the law requires them to have a compelling reason for setting aside a jury's verdict.

"I'm not saying any judge has been unethical in the past," Kopeny said. "But how can they not be influenced if they think a death sentence now really means death?"

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