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Death Penalty Is a Tougher Sell -- Even to O.C. Jurors

For the first time in a decade, prosecutors failed to win a capital punishment verdict. Public defender likens system to coin toss.

January 20, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

In a place synonymous with law-and-order conservatism, juries in Orange County have a reputation for siding with prosecutors in death penalty cases.

But for the first time in a decade, juries last year did not send a single defendant to death row. Prosecutors sought death in four trials in 2002 -- including one involving a mass-murder at an Anaheim hospital and another involving a cop killer -- but all of the juries deadlocked.

The milestone has prompted debate in legal circles about whether the national debate about the death penalty has spilled over into Orange County.

Whatever the reason, the record last year was in marked contrast with the last decade. Despite its low crime rate, Orange County has 47 killers awaiting execution, behind Los Angeles and Riverside counties.

Courts across the state are sending fewer defendants to death row, though there is debate about the reason.

Some point to national opinion polls showing a decline in support for the death penalty after some death-row defendants were exonerated by DNA tests. Others say the decline is more likely related to a drop in violent crime in the 1990s.

But a review of Orange County's death penalty cases suggests that different jurors can look at the same set of facts and arrive at different decisions on punishment.

In a fit of rage, Dung D. Trinh shot three employees to death at an Anaheim hospital in 1999. Three years later, from the witness chair of a Santa Ana courtroom, Trinh glared at jurors and dared them to give him the death penalty, saying, "I not only deserve it, I need it. I want it."

Trinh's crime had attracted nationwide headlines and prompted Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas to adopt a policy of seeking the death penalty any time someone commits a mass murder in public.

But in September, a jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of sentencing Trinh to life in prison without parole. Three months later, a jury hearing largely the same evidence deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of the death penalty. A third jury will be asked to decide his fate.

Juror Dotti Hoffstatter, a juror in Trinh's first trial, said she believes Rackauckas' blanket policy unfairly swept up Trinh. She noted that Trinh acted while devastated by his mother's death and irrationally blamed the hospital for her passing.

"I don't agree with it in this case," she said. "If you judge it according to the standards of the law, you can't give the death penalty, even if you want to."

Leland Jarvis was a juror in the case of Maurice Steskal, who was convicted of killing an Orange County sheriff's deputy with dozens of rounds from an assault rifle in June 1999. He said debating a death sentence is an enormous burden for a jury.

"This is not something we took lightly, because each one of us individually is responsible for killing this person," said Jarvis, whose jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of a life prison sentence. "When people really understand that, they're not going to be so quick to pull the trigger."

Jarvis said he was swayed by evidence that Steskal has suffered from mental illness since childhood. According to testimony, Steskal frequently carried a loaded rifle because of delusions that police officers were out to harm him. Prosecutors intend to take the case to a second jury this year, a decision that doesn't sit well with Jarvis.

"I don't see how a prosecutor can justify retrying this case unless he's going to try to prove you flat shouldn't care if someone is mentally ill," Jarvis said. "This guy is a child in an adult's body."

Another Orange County jury was unable to agree on the sentence for Huan Nguyen, a brain-damaged gang member who shot and killed a college student in 1994. His jury deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of a death sentence.

"Orange County being a strong pro-law-enforcement community, I would think the results of the past year are simply the result of the nature of the cases that were tried," said Brent Romney, a professor at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton and former supervisor of the Orange County district attorney's homicide unit.

"If the regular type of cases are tried, without the mental-health issues, Orange County juries will continue to impose the death penalty," Romney said.

The number of death sentences imposed in the United States has dropped sharply in recent years; the 155 death sentences imposed nationwide in 2001 was the lowest number since 1973, according to a recent Justice Department report.

Last week, Illinois Gov. George Ryan emptied the state's death row, pardoning four killers and commuting the sentences of 167 others to life in prison.

Orange County Public Defender Carl Holmes said one thing he gleaned from the results in 2002 is that a lot, maybe too much, depends on the makeup of juries. He cited the hospital shooting case, where the majority of the first jury favored life in prison, then three months later, a second leaned toward death.

"How fair can the death penalty be when wildly different results are reached by juries in the same case?" Holmes said.

"It seems the finding of death may be entirely capricious. How can we support a death verdict that may be really a coin toss?"

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