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Bizarre Tangle Emerges on Sentence in CHP Deaths : Courts: Jury decreed death in '78 case. But judge, who now doubts man's guilt, resentenced him to life.

December 23, 1991|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It was 13 years ago Sunday, in a cold early morning tule fog, that a motorist somehow got the drop on two highway patrolmen, then murdered them with their own guns in a Christmas week crime that shocked the state.

CHP Officer William M. Freeman, 35, took five bullets. His partner, Roy P. Blecher, 50, was found with his hands cuffed, shot in the head as he knelt on the freeway shoulder a few miles west of the state capital.

By Christmas Eve, Luis V. Rodriguez, a powerfully built 23-year-old with a long criminal past, was behind bars. His phony driver's license had been recovered under the slain officers' patrol car, and a girlfriend said she was with him at the scene of the murders. Once they found Rodriguez guilty, jurors needed just two days to conclude that the only fitting penalty was death.

More than a decade later, Rodriguez is very much alive, his body rippled by years of pumping iron in prison. Ask why the popular call for executions goes unheeded in this state, and some answers lie in the saga of what Deputy Atty. Gen. Dane Gillette calls "the most bizarre (death penalty case) in terms of its procedural history."

The legal tangle of Luis Rodriguez, now 36, is all the more surprising because, at the start, the case looked more solid than most. Back when the California Supreme Court regularly reversed death judgments, the justices upheld his conviction and affirmed all but one seemingly technical aspect of his death sentence. A date with the San Quentin gas chamber appeared to be assured.

But ever since that 1986 ruling, the case has careened through the court system--the subject of almost 40 hearings. Rodriguez regularly dispatches writs and legal papers from his cell at San Quentin. Charges of judicial bias fly, and the case is on appeal for the third time since the high court ruling.

The central figure presiding over this long case is Superior Court Judge Joseph Karesh, at 83 one of the state's senior judges. He first took the bench in 1961, in San Francisco, and formally retired in 1978. He has continued to hear cases full time in Oakland by special appointment.

Then-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird selected Karesh to handle the highly charged case of the slain CHP officers in 1980, and current Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas has kept him on.

Two weeks ago, in the face of persistent defense attacks on the verdict, Karesh proclaimed that he has "continually growing doubts" about whether Rodriguez is guilty. Citing his doubts, Karesh cut Rodriguez's death sentence to life in prison without parole.

The judge said he does not believe the story of the chief witness, Rodriguez's ex-lover, Margaret Klaess, whose testimony has been challenged by the defense. Without her testimony the case is weak, Karesh said, and he also is skeptical that one man alone could have disarmed and shot the two CHP officers.

Karesh did not explain if his view had changed in the decade since the trial or why he discounted the other evidence: The fake driver's license. The testimony by five witnesses that Rodriguez threatened to kill any police officer who tried to arrest him. The partial shoe print that matched the brand Rodriguez wore. The blood spot that stained his jeans.

Prosecutors are not easily shocked, but this turn stunned them. Nearly 13 years after the murders, the verdict that seemed so solid--and to them so just--was cast aside. Rodriguez is no longer a condemned man listed among the 314 prisoners awaiting California's first execution since 1967.

The anger of those who locked up Rodriguez is now focused on Karesh. Yolo County Dist. Atty. David Henderson called the judge the "prototype of the failings of the judicial system," and says the latest ruling contradicts Karesh's holding in the trial that the evidence--then fresh in mind--supported a conviction.

In an appeal, prosecutors hope to reinstate the death penalty. No longer hiding their feelings toward Karesh, they also have asked that the judge be removed, citing excessive delays in deciding the issues in the case.

Henderson's contention is that what began as mild uncertainty on Karesh's part has been magnified by time and by another "powerful factor"--the judge's opposition to the death penalty.

In an interview, Karesh acknowledges that he opposes capital punishment--and has never sentenced anyone other than Rodriguez to death--but insists that his view had nothing to do with the decision. A former federal prosecutor, Karesh is one of three brothers who entered the law. His son is a San Mateo County prosecutor. In a biographical sketch, Karesh says he believes in an "independent judiciary."

He wouldn't otherwise discuss the Rodriguez case. But in court he called the case "the most troubling" of his 30-year judicial career.

Rodriguez grew up middle class in the Los Angeles County suburb of Pico Rivera. His criminal record started at age 14 with auto theft. He was married once, and briefly enrolled in college, stating he hoped to be a probation officer.

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