by BOB ELGEKO
Aug 24, 2016
SAN FRANCISCO (SFGate) - In a ruling that could signal tougher scrutiny of capital cases by California's highest court, Gov. Jerry Brown's three appointees have joined a fourth justice to overturn a death sentence that a previous majority had voted to uphold.
Monday's 4-3 vote by the state Supreme Court granted a new penalty trial to Gary Grimes, to determine whether he should be resentenced to death or to life in prison without parole for his role in the murder of a 98-year-old Shasta County woman. State voters could take that issue off the table in November if they approve Proposition 62, which would repeal the state's death penalty law and resentence the nearly 750 Death Row inmates to life without parole.
In the meantime, however, the ruling suggests a shift on a court in which the death penalty has been an overriding issue for nearly four decades.
After legislators passed a death penalty law in 1977 and voters expanded it in 1988, the court under Chief Justice Rose Bird reversed nearly every death sentence it considered until 1986. The voters removed Bird and two other Brown appointees, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, and the newly composed court became one of the nation's leaders in upholding death sentences, with an affirmance rate that rose above 90 percent. It has also had a majority of Republican appointees for nearly three decades.
The court has become less conservative on social issues over the years, as illustrated by a May 2008 ruling granting same-sex couples the right to marry. But it has continued to uphold a large majority of the death sentences it has considered until six weeks ago. Since then, the court has overturned four out of seven death verdicts.
The first three reversals were unanimous, based on findings that the trial judge had wrongly dismissed jurors or interfered with jury deliberations.
In Grimes' case, however, the new ruling was due to a change in the court's membership, Brown's appointments of Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger, who joined the Democratic governor's previous appointee, Justice Goodwin Liu.
Grimes [represented in the Supreme Court by Berkeley lawyer Cliff Gardner] was sentenced to death for allegedly ordering the murder of Betty Bone, who was stabbed and strangled by burglars who broke into her home in 1995. Prosecution witnesses said the killer was 20-year-old John Morris, who committed suicide in jail the day after his arrest.
Grimes admitted taking part in the burglary, but denied any role in the murder. Prosecution witnesses said he had directed the killing, watched it take place and laughed about it with Morris afterward.
The disputed issue in the case was the trial judge's refusal to allow defense witnesses to testify that Morris told them Grimes had taken no part in the killing and had been shocked to see it happen.
A different 4-3 court majority, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, upheld Grimes' death sentence in January 2015, saying the testimony was properly excluded as secondhand hearsay accounts by other witnesses and would not have affected the verdict, because the prosecutor had never claimed Grimes was the killer.
But Cuéllar and Kruger joined the court before the ruling became final and voted to reconsider it, joining two of the dissenting justices, Liu and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a generally moderate appointee of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
On Monday, a new majority led by Kruger upheld Grimes' murder conviction but reversed his death sentence.
Kruger said Morris' reported statements about Grimes should have been allowed into evidence because the killer appeared to be taking responsibility rather than blaming someone else, a type of hearsay that is legally admissible. She said the statements might have persuaded one or more jurors to spare Grimes' life.
In dissent, Cantil-Sakauye said the ruling "opens the door to potentially untrustworthy hearsay" in future cases, and also argued that the evidence would not have affected the jury's decision.
Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco nonprofit that opposes capital punishment, said the ruling and other recent decisions may reflect "a newfound courage" on the court.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-capital punishment Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, responded, "It's a little premature to be calling it a trend for one case."
The case is People vs. Grimes, S076339.