SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court upheld the death sentence Monday for a deranged killer, even though two jurors committed misconduct by asking their Christian clerics for guidance in the middle of deliberations.
One pastor advised that execution was compatible with biblical teachings, while the other told a Kern County juror that he would not hesitate to recommend death in the case.
The court's 4-3 ruling is expected to spur expanded juror warnings against discussing a case outside the courtroom, a prohibition designed to ensure cases are decided only on the basis of evidence presented in court.
And the decision may also make it harder for defendants to challenge verdicts when jury misconduct occurs.
The misconduct at issue occurred in the trial of Joseph Martin Danks, 41, who was charged with the 1990 murder of a fellow prison inmate in Kern County.
At the time of the murder, Danks was serving 156 years to life for killing six transients in Los Angeles, where he had been dubbed the "Koreatown Slasher."
One of the jurors passed around passages from the Bible during deliberations, including this verse: "If a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death."
In the majority ruling by Justice Janice Rogers Brown, the court observed that the evidence against Danks was so extensive that the jurors probably would have voted for the death penalty even without the misconduct.
"We are unable to prescribe to any perceived stereotype that jurors who receive advice from Christian spiritual leaders or are exposed to Biblical passages ... are automatically rendered incapable of fairly evaluating the evidence and law before them," Brown wrote for the court.
But the majority found it "troubling" that two jurors had spoken to their pastors, and recommended that jury instructions be clarified to state that warnings against discussing the case extend to spiritual advisors, spouses and therapists.
Justice Carlos R. Moreno, one of the three justices who agreed with the guilty verdict but dissented on the sentence, said the jury misconduct was so "egregious" and "flagrant" that the death sentence should be overturned, despite Danks' "horrific" crimes and "shocking" lack of remorse.
Moreno observed that Danks choked his 67-year-old cellmate to death because Danks believed killing old people was "the Lord's work." Danks also choked and stabbed another inmate in 1989.
During his 1993 murder trial, Danks stabbed his lawyer in the face and then dove toward the jury before a bailiff restrained him. While testifying during the penalty phase of his trial, Danks said he had stabbed the transients in Los Angeles while they slept. Addressing the jurors, Danks added: "I would do it to you too."
But the jurors also heard testimony that Danks was paranoid and delusional. He thought that celebrities excreted into his food. Danks scrubbed his cell with a toothbrush six to 10 times a day. Witnesses said he had exhibited such behavior for years.
"Against this backdrop, and in direct violation of the court's order not to discuss trial matters with nonjurors, two jurors took the extraordinary step of discussing their possible death verdict with their pastors," Moreno wrote.
"The majority fails to appreciate," Moreno added, "that this deplorable juror misconduct undermines the integrity of California's death penalty process."
Justice Joyce L. Kennard also took issue with the majority's finding that the jury would have voted for death even without the misconduct.
Noting that Danks' mental impairment appeared to be comparable to mental retardation, Kennard said the jury could have determined that his deficiencies diminished his culpability.
"Although mental illness does not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, California law recognizes it as a mitigating factor that weighs against capital punishment," Kennard wrote. Chief Justice Ronald M. George signed both dissents.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Lloyd G. Carter said the decision would probably lead to an expanded jury admonition about discussing the case within a year or so.
"I think the court reached the right decision, and I don't think we have any quarrel with a revised jury instruction that makes it clear to jurors how they are supposed to behave," Carter said.
Musawwir Spiegel, who represented Danks, said he would ask the state high court to reconsider the decision, and if he is unsuccessful, would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state high court also is considering another appeal by Danks based on evidence not presented at trial.
"A capital defendant has the right to have their penalty decided based on the law of California, not based on religious doctrine or the guidance of ministers," he said.
Spiegel said the ruling in People vs. Danks would "make it harder than ever for a defendant whose verdict was infected by jury misconduct to get any relief."