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Justices Rule in 4 Death Penalty Cases

Law: U.S. Supreme Court upholds two execution reversals, orders review of a third and clears way for '83 Chino Hills killer to die.

October 08, 2002|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand two decisions by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in which death sentences were reversed, but the high court said it would review another death penalty reversal by the appellate court.

In addition, the Supreme Court upheld a 9th Circuit decision that permits the planned execution of Kevin Cooper to move forward. Cooper, convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder in Chino Hills after escaping from prison, now goes to the head of the list of those facing execution on California's death row, according to Dane Gillette, who heads the death penalty unit in the California attorney general's office.

Cooper is seeking further hearings before the 9th Circuit, but prospects dimmed last week when the state attorney general's office said that new DNA testing appears to place Cooper at the crime scene.

Although the three other 9th Circuit decisions all reversed death sentences that had been approved by the California Supreme Court, the cases did not otherwise fall into a particular pattern.

In one case that the high court let stand Monday, the death sentence of a Lassen County man had been reversed because of ineffective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase of his trial. Last February, the 9th Circuit ruled 3-0 that the attorney for Benjamin W. Silva, who had been convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping stemming from the deaths of two college students in 1981, had failed to investigate and present potentially compelling mitigating evidence during the penalty phase.

His appellate attorneys unearthed evidence that Silva had been "severely abused and neglected as a child by alcoholic and impoverished parents; that he may suffer from organic brain disorders resulting from fetal alcohol syndrome; ... and that at the time of the crime, he was probably suffering from amphetamine-induced organic metal disorders and withdrawal symptoms," according to the 9th Circuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to review a 2001 appellate ruling that a trial judge had given confusing instructions to a jury in the penalty phase of Bruce W. Morris' 1987 murder trial. The appeals court said jurors were given written instructions that at one point stated that Morris, if not sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of a man hitchhiking to Lake Tahoe, would face life with the possibility of parole. The instruction should have said life without possibility of parole.

Gillette said that both cases have been sent back to federal district court judges for further examination of other issues that arose at the guilt phase of each trial. He said that "at the very least," each man would be entitled to a new penalty phase trial.

In the fourth case, stemming from another 2001 reversal by the 9th Circuit, the high court decided it will review the case based on a technical question. The 9th Circuit ruled that the judge in Robert F. Garceau's 1987 Kern County murder trial improperly invited jurors to consider the defendant's previous murder conviction--or his record of drug dealing, burglary and weapons violations.

The Supreme Court indicated that its decision would be based on interpretation of a 1996 federal statute, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. That law was designed to limit the rights of convicted murderers to have federal courts review their cases.

Since then, there has been considerable litigation over which cases it applies to.

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