Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Alcala v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 27, 2007)

I had two strong -- admittedly somewhat contradictory -- reactions to this case.

First, I can very easily see why the defendant was previously sentenced to death. Twice. And almost assuredly will be again. Read the six pages starting at page three and you'll see why. It's horrible, chilling stuff.

Second, when I read further, and dug a little deeper, I started to have very serious concerns about the manner in which Justice Sills presented the facts in his opinion. The most damning evidence that Justice Sills discusses that ties Alcala to the murder of Robin Samsoe came from Dana Crappa, a witness whose testimony Justice Sills details at pages three and four. Read how Justice Sills describes that testimony, which is presented in a very favorable (though somewhat strange) light.

Then read this opinion by Judge Dorothy Nelson of the Ninth Circuit. Which discusses and analyzes Ms. Crappa's devastating testimony at length (particularly at pages 8735, 8746-52, and 8760-62).

Let's just stay that Justice Sills' description of this central testimony against the defendant is extremely unbalanced. To say the least. It's a type of biased, results-oriented presentation that I wouldn't even expect in a prosecutor's brief, at least from a good one. Much less do I expect something like this from the opinion of a neutral judge.

Mind you, the actual holding of the case concerns only venue issues, so it's not like the one-sided factual recitations technically "matter" to the holding. Still, I didn't like what I read here. I want to trust that what I'm reading from the Court of Appeal is a balanced presentation of the matter and one that I can both rely upon and trust. And I didn't get that feeling in this case.

P.S. - What's perhaps most surprising about this opinion is that it comes from Justice Sills. As loyal readers may recall, I've been almost uniformly effusive about his work product. This is a classic example of my reaction to the opinions by Justice Sills (e.g., "I wish that I could write half as well as he does," "I don't recall ever strongly disagreeing with one of his published opinions," and "Want to see the type of enlighted, well-written, equitable, and incredibly reasonable opinion that I wish were the norm rather than the exception? Here it is."). And this one. And this one too. Sure, Justice Sills may occasionally be a bit harsh. Or, rarely, a little sloppy.

But I typically find myself incredibly impressed by his opinons. Except for this one. Which didn't have to be that way. Especially on a largely irrelevant point.

Maybe this simply further evidence -- yet again -- that death penalty cases often tend to bring out the worst in people. Even incredibly good judges.