SAN FRANCISCO — A defendant representing himself in a capital case may refuse to present evidence seeking mercy and may plead with jurors to send him to the gas chamber, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a 5-2 decision, the justices rejected claims that allowing defendants to make such pleas would lead to "state-aided suicide" and would undermine the state's interest in a reliable capital verdict.
A mentally competent defendant retains a well-established constitutional right to represent himself, the court noted. And the defendant who does so cannot change course on appeal and seek to overturn the verdict on the grounds of an inadequate defense, the justices said.
The court upheld the conviction and death sentence of Robert M. Bloom Jr., now 25, for the killing of his father, stepmother and 8-year old stepsister in Sun Valley in 1982.
The trial judge correctly allowed Bloom to represent himself, even though Bloom urged his own execution, the court said in an opinion by Justice Marcus M. Kaufman. "It is not irrational to prefer the death penalty to life imprisonment without parole," Kaufman said.
"Having expressly rejected full representation by a skilled professional, and having elected self-representation for the purpose of facilitating a death verdict, the defendant could not reasonably have expected to obtain reversal of a judgment of death by asserting the ineffectiveness of his own unskilled efforts," he wrote.
In dissent, Justice Stanley Mosk, joined by Justice Allen E. Broussard, said the ruling allowed the defendant to make "a sham and mockery of justice." The right to self-representation should serve as "a shield" for a defendant, not "a sword . . . to prosecute himself and undermine the adversary process," Mosk said.
Bloom, 18 at the time of the crime and 19 during the trial, was permitted to represent himself in the penalty phase of the case over the objection of his court-appointed lawyer. He refused to present character witnesses or other mitigating evidence.
"This is a case where justice cries out for the death penalty," Bloom told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury. "A life sentence is no deterrent. . . . If you give life I'll laugh all day long . . . (and) I'll kill again in prison."
Bloom's attorney on appeal, Dennis P. Riordan of San Francisco, sharply criticized Monday's ruling, saying it would be challenged further in the federal courts.
"The court is saying there is no state policy against having defendants kill themselves with the state's assistance, even if death is not the appropriate policy," said Riordan. "We have a ruling here that says the jury doesn't have to be presented with reasons why defendants shouldn't die."
State Deputy Atty. Gen. Robert C. Schneider welcomed the decision. "The court is saying once you have gained the right to represent yourself, you're responsible for the consequences of your own actions," he said.
Attorneys said that under the ruling, a defendant still may not plead guilty to capital charges over the objections of a lawyer who is representing him at trial.
But the decision may have cast doubt over past rulings that have prevented defendants who are represented by counsel from instructing their lawyers not to seek mercy from a jury weighing the death penalty, lawyers said.
Monday's ruling specifically disapproved a suggestion in a 1985 decision by the court under then-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird that the failure to present mitigating evidence to the jury made death verdicts inherently unreliable.
The ruling in Bloom's case was one of three capital decisions issued by the justices Monday.
The court, in a 6-1 ruling, also upheld the death sentence of Michael Allen Hamilton, 27, for the murder of his wife and their unborn child in Porterville in 1981.
In another case, the justices unanimously overturned the conviction and death sentence of Felipe Evangelista Sixto, 32, finding the defendant had been denied adequate counsel in his trial for the murder of a 5-year-old boy in Arvin in 1981.
Bloom was charged in the fatal shooting of his father, Robert Bloom Sr., 41, and his stepmother, Lucille Bloom, 27, and the stabbing and shooting death of his stepsister, Sandra Hughes Bloom.
Found competent to defend himself by Judge James A. Albracht, Bloom took over in the penalty phase of the case and told the jury he felt no remorse for killing his father, whom he accused of repeatedly abusing him as a child.
After the jury returned a verdict of death, proceedings were suspended for a hearing on Bloom's mental competency after he acted in a bizarre fashion and stabbed a fellow inmate. Later, Bloom was found competent and the judge imposed the sentence of death.
In Monday's ruling, Kaufman said Bloom's self-representation "did not contravene the policy against state-aided suicide." Even with his argument, the jury still might have returned a verdict of life in prison, feeling death was "too good" for the defendant, the justice said.
Kaufman said further there were "practical and theoretical flaws" in Bloom's contention on appeal that withholding mitigating evidence undermined the state's interest in reliable verdicts and that his sentence should be overturned.
Courts have no way to compel a defendant to cooperate and provide information or other assistance in putting on a defense, he noted.
Further, said Kaufman, defendants could circumvent the death penalty by representing themselves and then failing to put on evidence, knowing that any resulting death verdict would be overturned on appeal.
Kaufman's opinion was joined by Justices Edward A. Panelli and David N. Eagleson and retired Justice John A. Arguelles, sitting temporarily by appointment. Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas concurred in a separate opinion.