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Xrlq - Columnist

Xrlq is proprietor of the blog damnum absque injuria and a sometime attorney. [go to Xrlq index]


Bird-Brained Justice
Justice is not served...again.
[Xrlq] 09/05/03

Death penalty opponents frequently cite the large number of reversals as evidence that the death penalty is flawed. Anyone who seriously buys that argument would do well to read this case (PDF file) from last week, in which the California Supreme Court reversed - "because the trial court improperly dismissed a juror during jury selection" - the death sentence of James Matthew Heard, who had been convicted of the extremely grisly and depraved murder of 11 year old Katrina Brown. Indeed the murder was so depraved that readers with weak stomachs probably should skip this piece entirely.

Heard's rampage began at 2:00 a.m., when he left the apartment for a birthday party where he threatened to kill three people before being asked to leave. At 5:00 a.m., he returned to the apartment, picked a fight with his girlfriend, and then proceeded to attack her 11-year old daughter, Katrina Brown. Neighbors heard a screaming match for an hour but did not call 911, and went back to sleep. The next day, Katrina's cousin came to pick up Katrina for school, only to discover her naked body on the floor instead, and returned home. Her grandfather called 911. Per p. 5 of the opinion, here's what happened next:

Responding to Charles's 911 call, paramedics determined that Katrina was dead, and sheriff's deputies secured the apartment. Katrina's bedroom showed evidence of a struggle, and bloodstained clothing and other items lay around the body. Investigators also found blood, later identified as consistent with both defendant's and Katrina's, on three bedroom walls, the carpeting, and the bathroom floor and sink. In addition to the blood-soaked garment wrapped around Katrina's head, investigators found an empty bottle of rubbing alcohol in her mouth. There were bite marks on her chest area and, according to one of the Sheriff's investigators, a "dusty print on her chest" that appeared to have been "left by some sort of shoe as if someone stomped on her chest." A baseball bat wrapped with a curtain protruded from her vagina. Another bat, stained with blood and feces, lay between her legs.

None of these facts are in doubt, nor were the findings of special circumstances authorizing the death penalty. These findings were upheld unanimously. Yet the Court, by a 4-3 margin, reversed the death sentence anyway, reasoning that the judge had improperly dismissed a juror who cited "psychological factors" that would impair his ability to sentence anyone to death under any circumstances.

It should be noted that last week's reversal does not mean that Mr. Heard will not eventually receive the punishment he should have obtained years ago. What it does mean is that the penalty phase will be re-tried before a different jury, after which he will either be sentenced again to death or to life without parole. It does, however, all but guarantee that Heard will not be executed anytime soon. This for a thug who has already lived more years in the prison system following the 1990 murder than his victim got to spend on this planet, total. That, I submit, is a miscarriage of justice in its own right.

Justice Janice Brown, bless her heart, wrote a vigorous dissent, in which she was joined by Justices Baxter and Chin. In a way, this means that the glass is almost half full. If she sticks around long enough to knock a little more sense into just one more Justice, then maybe next time the court will reverse this idiotic precedent and do something reasonable instead. But if Justice Brown makes it to the federal bench and either Davis or Bustamante wins on October 7, the proverbial "silver lining" of her confirmation is going to leave a huge, California-shaped cloud behind.



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