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High Court Upholds Death Sentence in Oldest Appeal

December 04, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court, acting in its oldest pending capital appeal, on Thursday upheld the death penalty for the convicted killer of a Richmond jewelry store clerk in a February, 1978, robbery.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices rejected the claim that Ronald Lee Bell had been deprived of a fair trial because of improper conduct by the prosecution--including the prosecutor's assertions to the jury that Bell's own attorney doubted his innocence and was trying to "throw sand in your eyes."

As in other recent cases, the court cited the strong evidence against the defendant and found that any procedural flaws in Bell's trial were harmless. "We conclude that it is not reasonably probable the errors contributed to the verdict," Justice Stanley Mosk wrote for the court.

The justices noted that Bell had failed to produce an alibi to discredit testimony of eyewitnesses.

They also pointed out that Bell had based his defense on a claim of mistaken identity--citing an alleged similarity in appearance with his brother--but had failed to call his brother as a witness to show their likeness to the jury.

The justices thus far have upheld the death sentence in four of six capital cases they have decided since the departure of former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other court members defeated in the Nov. 4, 1986, election.

Prosecutors welcomed Thursday's ruling, noting that delay in preparing trial records for review and other procedural obstacles had made this the oldest case awaiting decision by the court on direct, automatic appeal. The case was first argued in March, 1986, and then, when no decision was reached by the Bird court, reargued before the new court in April.

"It's nice to have this one behind us," state Deputy Atty. Gen. Ronald Matthias said. "We're endeavoring to move these cases as swiftly as we can."

About 200 capital cases now await review, according to court officials.

Bell's attorneys were not immediately available for comment.

The ruling came in a case in which the killing of the store clerk and wounding of another employee was witnessed by a teen-age girl whose father had been fatally shot by Bell 10 years before, resulting in his conviction for manslaughter.

Just before the 1978 incident, Dorothy Dorton, then 13, had been in a parked car near the store with an aunt who recognized Bell and told the girl that he had killed her father. The girl then went into the jewelry store in time to see the man fatally shoot Raymond C. Murphy, wound John Howard Benjamin and flee with $30,000 in jewelry.

Bell was charged with murder, attempted murder, robbery and possession of a concealable firearm by an ex-felon. At his first trial, he was convicted on the firearm charge but the jury deadlocked on the others. At a second trial, he was convicted on all counts and the jury returned a verdict of death on March 2, 1979.

On appeal, Bell relied on allegations of misconduct by the prosecutor in the case, Gary T. Yancey, who is now the district attorney of Contra Costa County.

Bell argued that he was entitled to a new trial because Yancey had improperly mentioned before jurors a secret informant's statement implicating Bell in the crime; had deceived jurors by incorrectly implying that an appeal court had previously discredited an expert defense witness, and had suggested that Bell's lawyer was legally entitled to mislead the jury.

"It's his job to throw sand in your eyes, and he does a good job of it," the prosecutor said. "It's his job to get his man off. He wants to confuse you."

Mosk, in a 53-page majority opinion, agreed that the prosecutor had committed several acts of misconduct--some deliberately. But while the court did not condone the actions, they were not sufficient, even when viewed cumulatively, to warrant a new trial, he said.

The court also rejected a contention by Bell, who is black, that he was denied a trial by a jury representing a fair cross-section of the community because blacks had been systematically excluded from jury pools in Contra Costa County.

The justices said Bell had failed to show that the jury pool or the panel drawn from the pool under-represented blacks in his case.

The opinion was joined by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justices Edward A. Panelli, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman. Justice John A. Arguelles concurred separately in upholding the death penalty. And Justice Allen E. Broussard dissented, saying the sentence should be overturned.

Broussard contended that Bell's conviction for possession of a firearm by an ex-felon should be overturned. The underlying felony--Bell's 1968 conviction for manslaughter in the slaying of Alcus Dorton, Dorothy's father--should have been removed from Bell's record when he was released from the California Youth Authority, Broussard said.

The justice said state law provides that youthful offenders who are "honorably discharged" are to be relieved of "all penalties and disabilities." He said Bell's death sentence should be reversed because there was a "real probability" the jury was improperly influenced by Bell's previous felony conviction.

In his separate opinion, Arguelles agreed with Broussard that the firearm-possession conviction should not have been used against Bell. But Arguelles found that Bell's death sentence should stand because the previous conviction likely played little part in the jury's verdict.

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