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Court Rules on Murderer's Resentencing

September 18, 1993|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court refused to give prosecutors an opportunity to have a death sentence reinstated against a man convicted of murdering two California Highway Patrol officers.

The court's 5-2 decision Thursday ends a protracted legal tangle in state courts over whether a trial judge erred in cutting the murderer's sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole.

Superior Court Judge Joseph Karesh, a retired judge who handled the trial in Alameda County, professed that he had "continually growing doubts" that Luis V. Rodriguez was guilty of the 1978 murders of two CHP officers who stopped him at a traffic light in West Sacramento.

A jury in 1981 convicted Rodriguez and sentenced him to death. The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction five years later but asked Karesh to reconsider whether the death sentence was appropriate. The court said the judge had not formally heard Rodriguez's motion for a reduced sentence, as required.

A drawn-out legal battle ensued. A defense attorney learned that one juror, during deadlocked deliberations, had driven his car along the route Rodriguez took to test his alibi for the night of the killings. Convinced that Rodriguez was guilty, the juror used his findings to persuade a holdout on the panel to convict the defendant.

After learning of the juror's breach of court protocol, Karesh ordered a new trial. A state Court of Appeal intervened, ordering the judge to resentence Rodriguez based on the trial evidence.

The judge reduced the sentence, contending that he did not believe the story of Rodriguez's ex-lover, the chief witness. Karesh also was skeptical that one man alone could have disarmed the two CHP officers, and believed that Rodriguez had received an unfair trial.

The court ruled Thursday on an appeal by the California attorney general's office, which asked that the life sentence be overturned and another judge appointed to determine if the death sentence had been appropriate.

Justices Edward A. Panelli and Ronald M. George voted to review the case, but the other five justices decided to let the decision stand.

"I think it is an unfair result," Deputy Atty. Gen. Dane Gillette said. "If ever there was a guy who ought to get the death penalty, it is Luis Rodriguez. . . . He is not innocent. There is no question about that."

California judges can reduce a death sentence imposed by a jury. But Gillette said prosecutors believed that Karesh could not fairly decide the case based on his previous handling of it. Karesh is opposed to the death penalty, but insisted that his view had nothing to do with his decision.

Although the court's ruling ends the question of whether Rodriguez can be put to death, he intends to file an appeal of his conviction in federal court, his attorney, Dennis Riordan, said.

Riordan said he will appeal on the grounds of jury misconduct.

"The fact that the trial judge declared the trial unfair is going to have an enormous impact," the San Francisco attorney said.

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