A federal appeals court has granted a new trial for a onetime Hells Angels drug dealer who was sentenced to die in the 1984 killings of his girlfriend and her teenage son.
The ruling does not affect Robert Frederick Garceau's separate conviction for slaying a former drug partner who allegedly helped him bury the woman and boy. Garceau, 55, of Canoga Park, is serving 33 years to life in prison for that murder.
But Garceau's 1987 death sentence would be voided if Kern County prosecutors decline to try the case again due to circumstances such as a lack of available witnesses.
In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the judge in the double-murder trial should not have invited jurors to consider Garceau's previous murder conviction--or his record of drug dealing, burglary and weapons violations.
Garceau's trial and sentencing were "infected with constitutional error which had a substantial and harmful effect on the jury's verdict," 9th Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote.
Garceau denied fatally stabbing Maureen Bautista of North Hollywood and her 14-year-old son, Telesforo, in a Bakersfield apartment 17 years ago, stuffing their bodies in a dresser and burying it in San Luis Obispo County. Prosecutors maintained that Garceau killed his girlfriend so she would not expose his drug business and then killed her son because he saw his mother's death.
The Bautistas' bodies were found six months after their deaths, buried under concrete in the backyard of one of Garceau's drug partners, Greg Rambo. No physical evidence linked Garceau to the Bautistas' killings, and he said one of his drug associates killed them. But several people with whom Garceau manufactured methamphetamine testified that he had confessed to the killings.
Before that trial, Garceau as convicted of fatally shooting Rambo in a Monterey County ravine in 1985.
When the judge told jurors they could consider that conviction and Garceau's other crimes in determining his guilt in the Bautista case, the instruction violated California law and Garceau's right to a fair trial, the appeals court said.
Garceau's case arrived in the federal appellate court after the state Supreme Court and a federal district court had both upheld the conviction.
The dissenting appeals judge, Diarmuid O'Scannlain, wrote that even if the judge's instructions to the jury violated Garceau's rights, the effect was harmless because jurors believed the witnesses who said he confessed to the slayings.
The Kern County district attorney's office, which prosecuted Garceau's original trial for the Bautista killings, has not decided whether to try the case again, Assistant Dist. Atty. Steve Tauzer said Thursday.
"I don't know if the witnesses are still available at this point," Tauzer said. "But our inclination would be to retry him."
Garceau's death sentence is the second Kern County murder case overturned recently by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Tauzer said. In July, the appellate court ruled that improper instructions to jurors voided a death sentence--but not the convictions--in the 1978 shooting deaths of three USC film students.