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Supreme Court Urged to Void Death Verdict in 'Freeway Killer' Case

January 12, 1988|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

The California Supreme Court was urged Monday to overturn the death sentence imposed in 1983 on William George Bonin, the so-called "Freeway Killer," for the murders of four teen-age boys in Orange County that were among a series of grisly torture killings.

The justices were told Bonin's trial should have been transferred to Northern California because jurors had been subjected to a flood of prejudicial publicity stemming from his previous trial in Los Angeles in which he was sentenced to death for 10 other killings.

Acting state Public Defender Monica Knox acknowledged that the notorious case involved "numerous and reprehensible" crimes.

Right to Protection

"But that doesn't mean (Bonin) is entitled to any less protection under the law. . . . The notion that a juror can say, 'Yes, I've read about the search for this guy and that he may have killed up to 44 people altogether but I can set all that aside' is unrealistic," she said.

In an unusual plea, Knox reminded the justices that they, too, need to disregard what they may have heard about the case, contending that the evidence was "not overwhelming" against Bonin. "I plead with the court not to view this . . . as an overwhelming case of guilt," she said.

State Deputy Atty. Gen. Steven H. Zeigen countered that publicity about the string of killings had "slowed to a trickle" by the time the Orange County prosecution came to trial and thus had relatively little effect on jurors.

While most of the 12 jurors eventually selected said in pretrial questioning that they had heard of the "Freeway Killer" or the Los Angeles proceedings, their grasp of the case appeared limited, the state attorney said. Two jurors, he noted, had no knowledge at all of the case and two others had confused it with the "Hillside Strangler" killings.

"The jurors who were impaneled provided a fair trial," Zeigen said. "There was no need to transfer the trial."

Difficult Question

The court heard 80 minutes of argument in Los Angeles mainly on the nettlesome legal question of when a defendant must be given a change of venue to guard against the effects of potentially prejudicial publicity. State statutes leave it up to a trial judge to decide whether there is a "reasonable likelihood" that a fair and impartial trial cannot be held where the crime took place--a decision that is then subject to review on appeal.

Courts are reluctant to order a change of venue because of the high costs--which are borne by the county where the case originated--and inconvenience to witnesses. A recently enacted state law, aimed at reducing such problems, now allows for a jury to be brought in from a different community to try a case where necessary.

Bonin's case is unusual. Other notorious defendants--such as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan--have been tried where the crimes occurred. But Bonin, over defense objections, was tried in Orange County just a year after he already had been found guilty in neighboring Los Angeles in a trial marked by accounts of grotesque homosexual torture.

Knox, representing Bonin on appeal, argued that the publicity generated by the Los Angeles proceedings made it likely that he did not receive a fair trial in Orange County. Of the 204 people questioned as prospective jurors, 174, or 85%, admitted to some knowledge of the Los Angeles trial or Bonin's alleged identity as the "Freeway Killer," she said.

Cases Known Everywhere

Justice Stanley Mosk, pointing to a difficult question in such cases, asked whether there weren't some cases, like those of Manson and Sirhan, that generated so much publicity that it was fruitless to seek a community where little is known of the case.

Knox replied that Bonin's case could have been transferred from Orange County to the opposite end of the state. "This case was very big news in Southern California," she said. "If it had been moved up to Northern California, that would have solved the problem."

Zeigen told the justices that a change of venue was more appropriate in cases in smaller communities where pretrial publicity may have a greater effect. Orange County, he pointed out, is the sixth-largest metropolitan area in the United States.

The fact that the victims in the case were not unusually prominent and that Bonin, a 41-year old former Downey resident, was not subject to hostility as an "outsider" also supported denial of a change of venue in the case, he said.

Bonin's conviction and death sentence in the Los Angeles case is scheduled for argument before the justices in April.

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