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New Trial, New Charge in Old Cases

A death row inmate's conviction is voided in the 1979 murder of a Huntington Beach girl, but DNA allegedly links him to a 1977 Malibu killing.

June 28, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A man who has spent 22 years on California's death row got a mixed message from the criminal justice system Friday: A federal court awarded him a new trial on his 1979 murder conviction, but prosecutors revealed that DNA evidence links him to a 1977 killing.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3 to 0 that Rodney J. Alcala, now 59, a onetime photographer from Monterey Park, is entitled to a new trial because his constitutional rights were violated repeatedly at a 1986 trial in Orange County.

That trial was his second in the death of Robin Samsoe, a 12-year-old girl last seen alive at the beach not far from her Huntington Beach home on June 20, 1979. The first conviction, in 1980, was also overturned.

The appeals court ruled that the judge in the 1986 trial wrongly barred testimony that would have cast doubt on the prosecution's principal witness.

The reversal of the conviction brought angry objections from prosecutors and the victim's family.

"We are incredibly disappointed," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Adrianne S. Denault, who handled the case before the appeals court. "We think the court is wrong and that justice has not been served in this case."

"I don't know if I'm ready for this," said Marianne Connelly, mother of the victim. "The first time, I don't think it was even as bad. You're in a lot of shock. The second time, you know everything and you get scared. You have to see him every day [in court].... I don't know. I just don't know."

Meanwhile, however, prosecutors have brought murder charges against Alcala in the Dec. 16, 1977, killing of Georgia Wixted, 27, at her home on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, allegedly as Alcala was committing a burglary. Wixted was beaten to death.

State officials tested Alcala's DNA as part of a program of taking DNA samples from people in prison. "There was a cold-case hit on a 1977 murder victim," said Denault.

On June 5, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed a complaint against Alcala alleging that he murdered Wixted while he was engaged in the commission of two other felonies -- burglary and rape.

The complaint was lodged as a "special circumstances" case, meaning that the district attorney's office may seek the death penalty, but no decision has been made yet, sources said.

In 1984, four years after Alcala's first trial, the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

Prosecutors should not have been allowed to present evidence of his previous assaults on young women, the court said.

In 1968, Alcala attacked an 8-year-old girl with a pipe. Alcala served a prison term for that crime. He later went to prison for an attack on a 14-year-old girl.

After the reversal of his 1980 conviction, Alcala was retried, convicted again and sentenced to death a second time at a Santa Ana trial in 1986. The state Supreme Court upheld that conviction.

But two years ago, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson in Los Angeles ruled that during Alcala's second trial, Orange County Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin "precluded the defense from developing and presenting evidence material to significant issues in the case."

A key issue was the reliability of the prosecution's key witness, Dana Crappa, a former U.S. Forest Service ranger. Crappa offered the only evidence linking Alcala to Samsoe at the site where her body was found.

Crappa testified during the first trial that she believed she had seen the two together. However, at the second trial, Crappa said she had amnesia.

The prosecution was allowed to have her testimony from the first case read to the jury. McCartin did not permit testimony from psychologist Ray W. London of Irvine, who had listened to hours of taped police interviews with Crappa, and was prepared to tell jurors that her testimony had been induced by homicide investigators -- a contention they denied.

Crappa's demeanor during the first trial "was odd, if not bizarre," appeals court judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote in the opinion released Friday.

"The record is replete with examples of Crappa behaving in a manner that calls into question her credibility, mental stability, psychiatric health and veracity as witness," Nelson concluded.

Nelson's opinion upheld virtually all of Wilson's rulings. The appeals court agreed that McCartin wrongly barred testimony of three other potentially relevant witnesses and incorrectly admitted other evidence.

The appeals court also ruled that Alcala received constitutionally deficient representation from his trial lawyers. The lawyers failed to introduce evidence from a possible key alibi witness and failed to investigate the crime scene, the judges wrote.

The effect of Judge McCartin's errors coupled with the defense attorneys' lackluster performance "goes to the heart of the prosecution's theory of the case and undermines every important element of proof offered by the prosecution against Alcala," wrote Nelson.

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