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New trial is weighed in '79 slaying

A federal court is trying to determine if actions by jurors contaminated the conviction and death sentence of a man who killed a USC librarian.

December 14, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court wrestled Wednesday with whether to grant a new trial to a man on death row for the horrific 1979 murder of a USC student librarian.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether Stevie Lamar Fields' conviction for the rape, robbery and murder of Rosemary Carr Cobb was contaminated by a juror's failure to disclose that his wife had been a rape victim, and by the jury foreman's recitation of Bible verses during the trial's death penalty phase.

Fields, now 49, has been on death row for a quarter-century. When the California Supreme Court upheld his conviction more than 20 years ago, Justice Alan Broussard described him as a "one-man crime wave." Just 14 days after his parole from a manslaughter sentence, Fields killed Cobb, robbed, kidnapped, forced oral copulation on and raped three other women, and robbed Clarence Gessendaner.

A University of Michigan graduate, Cobb, 26, was studying for her master's in library science at USC.

While court arguments were underway Wednesday, Cobb's 79-year-old mother, Bernice Stamps, who now lives in Michigan, said she was thinking about her daughter, as she does most days.

"When Rosemary was murdered, a part of me was gone," Stamps said in a telephone interview, adding that she's frustrated the criminal case remains unresolved.

If Fields prevails on the Bible verses issue, he would get a new death penalty trial. But if he prevails on the other point, the court could overturn his conviction and order a new trial. The court is expected to rule next year.

Six years ago, U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian, a self-described hard-liner on crime, set aside Fields' death sentence because of the jury foreman's conduct.

Among the passages the foreman imparted to his fellow jurors were: "Who so sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" and "He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death."

The jury was deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of sentencing Fields to life without possibility of parole. But after hearing the foreman, the panel voted unanimously to send him to the gas chamber.

Tevrizian ruled that the deliberations had been "contaminated" and "rendered fundamentally unfair by the jury's consideration of extrinsic evidence."

The California attorney general's office appealed. A three-judge 9th Circuit panel, led by Pamela Ann Rymer, reversed the decision, holding that biblical verses were "the kind of common knowledge which most jurors are presumed to possess."

But last September, the 9th Circuit vacated that ruling and ordered a rehearing by a larger panel, setting the stage for Wednesday's hearing before 15 members of the court, which hears federal appeals from nine western states.

Several of the judges indicated that they were troubled by the juror's failure to disclose during jury selection that his wife had been raped two years before Cobb's murder.

The wife's assailant -- like Fields -- was a young black male and had not been captured, and she believed that Fields may have been her rapist. Moreover, the juror and his wife discussed the issue during the trial. He told his wife he did not want her to come to court to look at Fields, fearing that it might lead to his removal.

"What bothers me," said Judge Margaret McKeown, is that "every night he talked about this defendant with his wife ... who, whether it is crazy or not, believes this defendant is the one who attacked her. That is the difficulty you have to get over," McKeown told Deputy Atty. Gen. Kristoffer Jorstad.

He responded that what mattered was what the juror was thinking, not his wife. But Judge Stephen Reinhardt countered, "It doesn't matter what the juror feels." Rather, Reinhardt said it was what the average juror would have done under the circumstances.

Reinhardt said testimony showed that the juror's wife had been so traumatized that she would not leave the house, and her husband guarded the door with a rifle.

There was brisk questioning of both Jorstad and Fields' lawyer, David S. Olson of Sherman Oaks, concerning the jury foreman's use of the biblical quotations. Some of the judges appeared skeptical about Olson's argument that the foreman's action was misconduct, saying that jurors are expected to discuss their life experiences, including their feelings about right and wrong.

"How can we expect jurors to come to a conclusion without sharing their views on morality? Jurors are not expected to be insular," said Judge Alex Kozinski. "We expect them to share common experiences, especially comparing moral judgments."

But when Kozinski and Judge Marsha Berzon questioned Jorstad, they noted that the biblical passages were invoked during the penalty phase when jurors are supposed to balance aggravating and mitigating factors. Berzon said the biblical quotes were spoken as "absolutes," which is "contrary to the notion of mitigation and aggravation."

"The list of biblical quotations all cut one way," Kozinski said. "There are probably things in the Old and New Testament that could have been found to cut the other way."

Jorstad acknowledged Kozinski's argument, citing the Sermon on the Mount.

Then Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw added, "Turn the other cheek. That was not on the list brought into the jury room. If you look at the record, all the biblical quotations are in favor of the death penalty."

Jorstad countered that the quotes talked about the death penalty "in an abstract way" and that there was evidence that the biblical commands "did not supplant" the judge's instructions to the jury on how to deliberate.

henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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