Monday, August 23, 2021

People v. Wycoff (Cal. Supreme Court - August 23, 2021)

I honestly don't know what to feel about this one.

It's a death penalty case, and in reality, absolutely none of it matters.  California's not going to execute anyone -- much less this guy -- in the medium- to long-term anyway.  Moreover, I don't really care that Wycoff (and I'm deliberately not using the "Mr.") gets his conviction and death sentence unanimously reversed and remanded.  There's zero doubt -- zero -- that in a retrial, he'd again be convicted and, most likely, sentenced to death.  The guy repeatedly confessed, the evidence against him was overwhelming, and at trial (in which he represented himself) he admitted everything and said he was proud of what he'd done.

So the guy's going to be locked up forever pretty much regardless.  He seems okay with that; in his totally f*ed-up head, he thinks that killing his totally innocent sister and her husband was just fine.  Because they were "evil" because they were liberals.

Okay, so the guy spends the rest of his life in an institution.  And I don't particularly care either whether it's a prison or a mental health facility (though I strongly suspect it'll be the former).  Neither are especially great places, and he'll have plenty of time to reflect on what he's done.  Not that it'll matter; he's so messed up that, even with treatment, he'll probably still think he's done the world a great service by (allegedly) killing the moral equivalents of Adolph Hitler.  (Yes, that was his actual "defense" at trial.)  Okay, so that's how you'll spend the rest of your life.  So be it.

So it's deeply, deeply hard to care for what happens here.  Notwithstanding the fact that it's someone's life at stake.

That's not my usual reaction to these types of cases.  (Though I understand and appreciate that many people have the identical reaction to pretty much any case in which the defendant is sentenced to death; they think the guy got what he deserved, so who cares?)

On the merits, the case just shows what an infinitely fine line there is between crazy, nutty, psycho, incompetent, evil, and just plain weird.  It's a multidimensional spectrum between all of these (related) poles.  This guy's a perfect example.  He's so comprehensively messed up that it's incredibly hard to know what to think of him.  Notwithstanding the fact that he's more than willing to share every portion of his totally whack job thought processes.

Here's an overly long snippet to help you get a sense of the guy (and yet it barely skims the surface of just how absurd this guy is):

"Julie and Paul Rogers were murdered in their home in El Cerrito in the early morning hours of January 31, 2006. Two of their children — Eric (age 17) and Laurel (age 12) — were also home at the time. . . . The children awoke to the sound of a struggle. Eric looked into the hallway and saw a large-framed person, [Defendant is 6' 5" and 300 pounds] dressed in black, wearing a motorcycle helmet. The person was struggling with someone, whom Eric took to be one of his parents. Eric went into Laurel’s room and called the police. When the noise of the struggle subsided, Eric and Laurel found their father, Paul, face down on the floor in the master bedroom, with a knife in his back. Paul told Laurel, “It was your uncle.” When Laurel asked if he meant her Uncle Ted, Paul nodded in agreement. [Defendant is "Uncle Ted"]

About this time, police arrived. In the master bedroom, they found Paul, still alive, lying on his stomach. He had a bump on his forehead and stab wounds in his back. One of the officers asked Paul who had attacked him, and Paul answered: “My brother-in-law Ted.” Paul was not able to give any more details before he died. Another officer followed a trail of blood down the hallway, through the kitchen, and out the sliding glass door. He located Julie near the swimming pool. She was bleeding profusely but breathing. She had a large wound to her abdomen, exposing her intestines. She was transported to the hospital, but efforts to save her life were unsuccessful.

Defendant was arrested a few hours after the murders, at a hospital near his home in Citrus Heights. At the time of arrest, he had a cut on his left hand and a large cut on his right leg. He also had various scratches and abrasions on his chin and hands. Items that matched debris at the murder site were found in his van and home. The next day, February 1, 2006, officers interviewed defendant after advising him of his rights. (See Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436.) The interview was recorded and admitted into evidence. In the interview, defendant confessed that he had committed the murders and also that he had planned them in advance. He explained that Julie and Paul “were really bad, rotten people.” Paul was a “communist” and “way over to the left.” Julie and Paul were lax parents who drank in front of their children, maintained a filthy home, and neglected their dogs. . . .

[Defendant told police that he] decided against using a gun for the murders, because he did not want the murders to be “another statistic that liberals could use” to argue in favor of gun control. Therefore, he chose to commit the murders with a knife, although he also bought a wheelbarrow handle. . . . He said: “I set out to make the world a better place. And I set out . . . , you know, to [¶] . . . [¶] fight against evil.” About killing people, he said, “It’s murder. It’s wrong,” but he added: “What I did, I don’t . . . see it as murder, you know. I see it as something, you know, a bunch of moral steps that had to be taken. [¶] . . . [¶] I felt that [Julie’s] life was getting more and more screwed up, and she was screwing up her kids. And she was screwing up everyone else, everything around her. And they had just turned into some really evil people. [¶] . . . [¶] I do believe in self-defense. And I think it’s okay to, you know, do something like this in self-defense.” He further explained: “This is something you do to somebody when they deserve it . . . . [H]e said: “Well, you know, I’m kind of happy because, you know, I guess you could call it leveling. I may have leveled some karma, you know. I stopped an evil person in this world that had too much power. [¶] I mean some people like, you know, Adolf Hitler, you know . . . if you could just kill Adolf Hitler before he did what he did.” . . .

[At trial] Defendant also said about Julie and Paul’s deaths: “I’m proud of that. I accomplished something.” He expressed anger that Julie did not work, though his parents had paid for Julie to go to college, whereas he worked, and he had paid his own way through trucking school. . . . About the poems he had written describing the murders, he argued that “it’s good to write songs and dance about tyrants getting beaten,” and he offered the Star-Spangled Banner as an example. Later in his argument, he said: “I do not deserve punishment for this. I deserve award and reward and to live a beautiful, peaceful life for this. You know, people need to look up at me and appreciate me for this . . . .” He also characterized himself as a heroic vindicator of good over evil. He said: “A favorite saying of mine is, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Well, I am a good man, and I sure as hell did do something.” . . .

[At the sentencing phase] Defendant said: “I’ve got a little bit of that serial killer in me. When something breaks, I enjoy it. I have fun with it. I videotape it.” Defendant also stated more than once that it was his prerogative to decide between what was moral and what was immoral, and that if someone wronged him, he was entitled to get even by stealing from that person or resorting to other forms of self-help . . . . The prosecutor also offered into evidence a video of defendant displaying a dead cat and describing the fact that he shot the cat twice and then beat it to death with a stick. In the video, defendant related that the cat belonged to a neighbor, Curtis, and defendant said it was the second of Curtis’s cats that defendant had killed. Later in the same video, defendant described “cat war one” and “cat war two,” which together included 17 “confirmed cat kills” and many other possible “cat kills.”

In addition, the prosecutor offered a video in which defendant lamented graffiti and garbage behind a strip mall near his house. In the video, defendant explained that he used the private road that accessed the loading docks behind the strip mall, and he was angry that, due to the graffiti and the dumping of garbage, the owner had installed gates at either end of the private road. Defendant expressed an intent to vandalize the gates. In his view, installing the gates punished innocent people who used the private road as a shortcut, and the better solution was for the owner to shoot and kill the immoral people who were vandalizing the area and dumping the garbage. He also said that he hated a particular woman who was feeding cats behind the strip mall, and he said he would kill her.

Finally, the prosecutor elicited from defendant that he saw himself as an executioner, not a murderer. Defendant said: “Should the executioner be executed? No. The executioner is doing a job.” Defendant also explained that he was well qualified to decide who should be punished and who should not be, because his mind was “not cluttered” and “not polluted” by education. The prosecutor closed his cross-examination with this question: “But you might kill somebody if they left trash behind the warehouse or fed cats, correct?” Defendant answered: “Well, I might do that, yes."

Messed up.  Totally.  Right?

The California Supreme Court holds that the trial court should have investigated this guy's competence to stand trial, and given everything in the opinion -- plus a doctor's report that said, yeah, the guy is in fact totally incompetent to stand trial -- you can totally see why.  The guy's a whack job.

At the same time, the guy's got an acute mental clarity about his strategy.  Everything he says about his decision to go to trial and to act like he did, in a lot of ways, makes total sense.  Weirdly.

Here's his thought process:

"Defendant told Dr. Good [the doctor who opined that he was incompetent] that counsel wanted to pursue an insanity defense, but defendant saw that as a “small victory,” one not worth pursuing. . . . Significantly, defendant did not give as much importance as his lawyers did to the goal of avoiding a death sentence. Defendant doubted that a death sentence would ever result in his execution, and if it did, he did not think the execution would occur for a long time. Pointing out that both his parents had died from cancer and that he was overweight, defendant thought he would be much more likely to live out his normal lifespan in prison than to be executed. He also felt that the evidence against him was very strong, and therefore there was not much chance of winning a major victory. Given those circumstances, he thought the dignity of handling his own defense and telling the world his story was more valuable to him than the indignity of submitting to the legal maneuvering of his lawyers, with chances of success uncertain.

Although defendant conceded to Dr. Good that it was “possible” that a jury would accept an insanity defense, he thought it was “very unlikely.” He argued that he was “too competent, too sane” to persuade a jury that he had committed the offenses while insane. In this regard, he pointed out that he had worked in difficult jobs all his life, that a successful insanity defense was statistically rare, and that the jury in his case would be death qualified (see Wainwright v. Witt (1985) 469 U.S. 412, 424), which in his view meant that it would be less likely to accept an insanity defense. Given all that, he thought it was a better strategy “to try to pick a jury that believes in vigilante justice” and then explain to the jury why he had killed Julie and Paul. He also commented that if he took the insanity route, he would be admitting that what he did was wrong and asserting that he was too insane to appreciate its wrongfulness. Defendant felt very strongly that what he did was not wrong."

That is -- bizarrely -- a crazily rational way to look at things, no?

I've already spent too much time thinking about this guy.  He ends up locked up somewhere for the rest of his life notwithstanding whatever happens on remand.  Maybe I hope they eventually medicate him and he figures out that what he did was horribly wrong.  Though maybe he'd just prefer to be a satisfied pig instead of a dissatisfied Socrates.  Who knows?  These types of grand moral questions seem outside of my incredibly limited realm of competence.