Monday, February 14, 2011

In Re Price (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Feb. 14, 2011)

Forgive me if you've heard this one before:  A prosecutor in a death penalty case is sitting at a bar . . . .

Oh, wait.  It's not a joke.  That's actually the entire subject of this opinion.

The prosecutor at a death penalty case was indeed sitting at a bar -- more accurately, the bar at the Waterfront Cafe in Eureka -- with a friend (the wife of another deputy DA).  This was during the trial of a death penalty case being tried by the prosecutor.  Sort of a wind down, I guess.

The prosecutor and his friend's wife had some martinis and some appetizers, and during their 90 minutes or so at the bar, one of the jurors in the pending death penalty case -- who was working as a cook at the restaurant -- handed the duo some menus.  The prosecutor recognized the juror, and didn't talk to him.  But after a little alcoholic lubrication, as he was leaving the bar, the prosecutor paid his tab to the bartender, added a $10 or $20 tip, and said:  "Here, split this with [the juror] for a guilty verdict."


He probably shouldn't have done that.  Make that:  He definitely shouldn't have done that.  Even though I'm positive he was joking, and had a big smile on his face.  If only because Eureka's a small town.  And, small town or not, people talk.  And when people talk, other people listen.  Which is why the story quickly gets back to the defendant's attorneys, from multiple different sources.  Leading the defendant to file a habeas petition once he gets sentenced to death.

Ultimately the California Supreme Court unanimously concludes that it was a joke and wasn't prejudicial.  A holding that can easily be understood.

Particularly in the context of the case at hand.  In which the defendant was sentenced to death because he killed, among other people, the father of an inmate who had testified against the Aryan Brotherhood.  Can't get to the inmate (who's in protective custody), kill his family.  Nice.  Gonna get you sentenced to death every time.  Particularly when you send a note to your Aryan Brotherhood leader after the murder that says:  "That's took care of.  Everything went well."

Oh yeah.  Defendant also previously stabbed an African-American inmate while incarcerated in San Quentin who had been disrespectful to the Aryan Brotherhood.  And had previously engaged in robbery, escape and kidnapping.  Plus, to top things off, in addition to killing the father, the defendant had beaten a woman to death during a burglary.

Yeah.  The defendant's really going to get a lot of sympathy.  From both the jury and from the California Supreme Court.  Definitely want to give that guy relief.

So the lesson for today is not to bribe a juror.  Or even to joke about it.  Especially in a death penalty case.

Because even if the California Supreme Court ultimately rejects the habeas petition, guess what?  It'll be a long -- as well as expensive -- process.  The habeas petition here was filed in 1998.  It took until today for the Court to reject the petition.  So over a dozen years of delay in execution of the sentence.  Not even counting what will assuredly be the lengthy delays that will additionally arise from the inevitable federal habeas petition.

The joke is less funny when it results in twenty years of contested litigation, I figure.  Not worth it.  Just pay the bill and leave.