A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Thursday upheld death sentences in two decades-old Southern California murder cases, including the killing of a USC student librarian.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that Stevie Lamar Fields should be executed for the 1979 murder of USC student librarian Rosemary Janet Cobb.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 15, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Death penalty upheld -- An article in Friday's California section misspelled the last name of a USC student librarian murdered in 1979, Rosemary Janet Cobbs, as Cobb.
The court also agreed that Mitchell Sims should die by lethal injection for the 1985 slaying of Domino's Pizza deliveryman John S. Harrigan in Glendale.
Fields' case has been wending its way through the courts for more than a quarter-century.
Thursday's opinion described Fields, now 49, as a "one-man crime wave" who, just 14 days after his parole from a manslaughter sentence, began a spree that, in addition to the rape, murder and robbery of Cobbs, included various counts of robbery, kidnapping, forced oral copulation and rape against three other women and the robbery of Clarence Gessendaner.
Five years ago, Dickran Tevrizian, a federal district judge in Los Angeles, overturned Fields' death sentence, ruling that the jury foreman committed misconduct by reciting biblical passages such as "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" and "He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death" during penalty deliberations.
He noted that the jury had been deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of life without parole until the scriptural recitation, after which members voted unanimously for death.
Tevrizian said the death penalty deliberations were "rendered fundamentally unfair by the jury's consideration of extrinsic evidence."
But on Thursday, the 9th Circuit reversed that decision and reinstated the death sentence. The court, in an opinion by Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, said the Biblical quotations were not extrinsic but "the kind of common knowledge which most jurors are presumed to possess."
Judges Alex Kozinski, an appointee of President Reagan, and Barry G. Silverman, an appointee of President Clinton, joined Rymer's opinion.
David S. Olson, who has represented Fields on appeal for years, said he planned to ask the 9th Circuit for a rehearing with a wider selection of judges. He said that the evidence of prejudice from the Bible reading was "uncontroverted" and that he has a juror misconduct issue to raise.
The California attorney general's office had no immediate comment on the decision.
In the second case, Sims and girlfriend Ruby C. Padgett were convicted of strangling deliveryman Harrigan.
The pair left his bound and gagged body submerged in water in their hotel bathtub.
Padgett was tried separately and received a sentence of life without parole.
The California Supreme Court upheld Sims' conviction and his sentence, as did a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles.
Each of three 9th Circuit judges -- Rymer, Raymond C. Fisher, a Clinton appointee, and Betty B. Fletcher, an appointee of President Carter -- affirmed Sims' conviction.
But Fletcher said the death sentence should have been overturned because of a Miranda rule violation and the prosecutor's insistence that evidence of Sims' childhood abuse could not be considered by the jury during penalty discussions.
The Times was unable to reach Cornell law professors John Blume and Trevor Morrison, who represented Sims on appeal, or Deputy Atty. Gen. David F. Glassman, who successfully defended the verdicts on appeal.