SAN FRANCISCO — In a surprise action, the state Supreme Court agreed Thursday to reconsider a December ruling upholding the death penalty for the convicted murderer of a Richmond jewelry store clerk.
It marked the first time the new court, now led by conservatives, has voted to take the unusual step of re-examining one of its own capital punishment decisions.
In a brief order, the justices granted a petition for rehearing filed by lawyers for Ronald Lee Bell, 38, who had been found guilty of the murder of Raymond C. Murphy in a $30,000 robbery in 1978.
4th Sentence Affirmed
Bell's death sentence was the fourth that the new court had affirmed among seven capital cases it has thus far decided.
The court did not indicate which of several issues in the case warranted reconsideration. But one key challenge raised to the December ruling centers on the court's finding that because of the strong evidence against Bell, it was not "reasonably probable" that any procedural errors at the trial could have affected the outcome.
In this and other capital cases, the justices have drawn criticism from defense lawyers--and praise from prosecutors--for their refusal to order new trials for what they conclude were only minor errors.
No date was set for the rehearing. If the court eventually decides to reverse the 6-1 decision it issued Dec. 3, Bell could receive a new trial.
Thursday's action came with votes from four of the seven justices--the minimum required to order a rehearing.
Three court members who had joined the majority in the December ruling--Justices John A. Arguelles, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman--joined the dissenter, Justice Allen E. Broussard, in voting to grant reconsideration.
The three other court members who joined in the original majority were Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justices Stanley Mosk and Edward A. Panelli.
In a 35-page petition for rehearing, Bell's attorneys argued, among other things, that the December decision unfairly deprived Bell of a chance to show that blacks had been improperly excluded from the jury and incorrectly found that misconduct by the prosecutor in the case had been harmless.
State Deputy Public Defender Peter R. Silten, a lawyer for Bell, said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the court's action.
"We were quite upset by the (December) ruling," Silten said. "We felt the court had simply swept under the rug the misconduct and errors that occurred in this case."
Order Called Unexpected
State Deputy Atty. Gen. Ronald Matthias said he had "certainly not expected" Thursday's order.
"I can't begin to speculate why the court granted rehearing, but it's obvious it wants added elucidation on some issue," Matthias said. "We stand ready to help the court in any way we can."
In the December ruling, the court, in a 53-page opinion by Mosk, agreed that the prosecutor in the case, Contra Costa County Dist. Atty. Gary T. Yancey, had committed several acts of misconduct--some deliberately.
Among other things, Yancey improperly mentioned before jurors a secret informant's statement implicating Bell in the crime and asserted that the defendant's own attorney doubted his innocence.
The court said that while it did not condone such actions, they were not sufficient--even when viewed cumulatively--to warrant a new trial for Bell.
The justices 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 in those times had been systematically excluded from jury pools in the county.
The court said Bell had failed to provide evidence that blacks were under-represented in the jury pool or the panel drawn from the pool in his own case.
In the petition for rehearing, Bell's attorneys said the court's ruling conflicted with U.S. Supreme Court decisions by concluding there was no federal constitutional violation in the jury hearing the informant's statement so long as the judge later admonishes jurors to disregard it as inadmissible evidence.
"With all due respect, (we) submit that this court's holding is contrary to law and makes no sense," the petition said.
The attorneys also argued that Bell should have been allowed to challenge the makeup of the jury based on statistical data on the jury panels in his first trial, which ended in a hung jury, and other cases tried at the same time.
The December ruling has caused "great confusion" among trial lawyers because it implied that to challenge jury selection procedures, jury panels of as many as 100 people would have to be called and kept "on hold" while a lengthy hearing is held over their racial composition, the attorneys said.
Bell's lawyers noted further that in capital cases, sometimes up to 10 or 15 separate panels must be called before the exhaustive process of jury selection is complete.
In other action Thursday, the justices:
- Sent back for further hearings before a state Court of Appeal a case they had agreed to review to decide whether a 17-year-old Los Angeles youth can legally invoke his religious beliefs to refuse medical treatment for a life-threatening disease.
While the issue is being resolved in the courts, the youth, Christopher Lavender, may be given blood transfusions under Juvenile Court order for the acute form of leukemia he suffers.