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High Court Upsets Murder Conviction, Citing Police for 'Blunder' With Suspect

March 14, 1989|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court, citing a "blunder" by police, on Monday reversed the conviction and death sentence of a man found guilty in the frenzied "Halloween II" stabbing murders of an elderly Fullerton couple in 1982.

The court, in an unusual split, ruled 5 to 2 that Richard Delmer Boyer, 31, of El Monte, was entitled to a new trial because police obtained his confession in "flagrant violation" of his constitutional rights.

Justice David N. Eagleson, writing for the majority, called the case a "relatively rare but distressing (instance) in which the outcome is determined by the constable's blunders."

'Flashback' Claim

Boyer was convicted of murder and robbery and sentenced to death in 1984 in the killings of Aileen Harbitz, 68, and her husband, Francis, 67. At trial, Boyer admitted the slayings but unsuccessfully sought acquittal on grounds that he acted in a drug-induced "flashback" to a horror movie graphically depicting stranglings, shootings, stabbings and other brutal acts.

Monday's ruling, however, centered on two critical actions by police that the court concluded required reversal of Boyer's conviction and sentence.

First, the justices held that Boyer had been taken from his home to police headquarters and questioned at length before there was sufficient evidence to justify an arrest.

Then, after Boyer called a halt to the questioning by asserting his right to silence and legal counsel, police improperly resumed the interrogation in violation of his rights under the so-called Miranda rule, the court said.

The decision marked a rare split in a capital case among the five conservative court members appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian. Three Deukmejian appointees--Eagleson, Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justice John A. Arguelles--joined with Justices Stanley Mosk and Allen E. Broussard in the majority.

The governor's two other appointees--Justices Edward A. Panelli and Marcus M. Kaufman--dissented in an opinion by Panelli that strongly criticized the majority.

Subjective Belief Cited

The defendant, in fact, had been free to refuse to go to police headquarters and the majority erred in basing its ruling on his subjective belief that he had to accommodate the officers, the dissenters said.

"I am troubled and concerned that the subjective standard used by the majority portends a severe limitation, if not elimination, of the voluntary, non-custodial police-station interview," Panelli wrote.

State Deputy Atty. Gen. Jay M. Bloom said that he was "somewhat disappointed" in Monday's ruling and that prosecutors may seek a rehearing or appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Bloom noted that other important evidence may still be used against Boyer in any retrial.

The bodies of the victims had been discovered by the couple's son William several days after the killings. Francis Harbitz had been stabbed 24 times, his wife 19 times.

Later, William Harbitz made what he called a "long shot" suggestion to Fullerton police that Boyer might be the killer because he had done gardening work for the couple, owed them money, carried a sheath knife and became violent when drunk.

Informed of Rights

Police, admittedly without sufficient proof to arrest, went to Boyer's residence and asked him to accompany them to headquarters. At the station, Boyer was informed of his rights to silence and free legal counsel, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1966 landmark case of Miranda vs. Arizona.

During subsequent questioning, Boyer claimed he was innocent, but Detective Richard Lewis, a 20-year veteran of the force, repeatedly asserted that police could prove Boyer guilty.

According to testimony in the case, Boyer several times asked if he was under arrest, but Lewis evaded the question and continued the interrogation. Finally, Boyer said that he didn't "want to talk no more" and that he wanted a lawyer. Lewis told him to "sit tight."

Later, the detective summoned Boyer and told him that he did not know whether Boyer was telling the truth but that there would be further investigation. Then, according to Lewis, as he turned to leave the room to arrange transportation home for Boyer, the defendant shouted: "Hey, wait a minute. Come back here and sit down. You're right. I can't live with it. I did it. I didn't meant to do it. But I did it."

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