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Death Penalty Is Ruled Out in Hate Case

D.A. will seek a life term for the woman accused of killing a Mexican immigrant with her car. Her fitness to stand trial is in question.

June 25, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Three years after Marie Elise West became the first person in Los Angeles County to face execution for allegedly committing a hate crime, prosecutors said they will not seek the death penalty against her.

West, 38, who has a history of mental illness, is charged with running down Jesus Plascencia, 65, in her car and killing him in the parking lot of a Van Nuys bagel shop Sept. 1, 2000.

Witnesses allege that West used racial epithets in referring to her victim, a Mexican immigrant.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office charged West, who has since been found incompetent to stand trial, with murder and the special circumstance that the killing was a hate crime. A judge is reconsidering whether she is well enough to go on trial.

"The special circumstance is still alleged, and if the defendant is found guilty of the murder and the special circumstance is found true, then she will be sentenced to life in prison without parole," Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Millington said Tuesday.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Peter A. Bozanich, who helps decide when the death penalty will be sought in Los Angeles County, declined to discuss the specifics of the case.

The decision is based on numerous factors set by law, Bozanich said, including whether the defendant committed the alleged crime while "under extreme mental or emotional disturbance" and "appreciates the criminality of the conduct."

Attorney Carl A. "Tony" Capozzola, who once represented West, said he is pleased with the decision.

"The district attorney has shown social responsibility, and I hope they don't change their minds," he said.

Under a state law adopted in the late 1980s, anyone who intentionally kills another because of the victim's race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin may be charged with a special circumstance that allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty or a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

West, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had been hospitalized at least 20 times in the 12 years before her September 2000 arrest, according to Capozzola.

A Los Angeles County judge found West incompetent to stand trial in November 2000, and she was transferred to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino. She remained there until last October, when she allegedly attacked and threatened a staff member, and new criminal charges were filed against her, Capozzola said.

West was transferred to the San Bernardino County Jail and was again found to be incompetent to stand trial, he said.

Despite that finding, Patton officials determined that West's competence had been restored and she was ready to stand trial in the slaying, Capozzola said.

But as criminal proceedings were preparing to begin in Los Angeles County, West's sanity was again called into question.

A judge is expected to decide soon whether she will stand trial or return to the state hospital.

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