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Letters Warn Judge That Bird Won’t Let Killers Be Executed

Times Staff Writer

The scrawled note mailed to the San Fernando Courthouse was more than a little unusual.

Purportedly written by the convicted killer of a Los Angeles police officer, it advised the judge who will sentence him later this month to overturn a jury’s recommendation of death because “Chief Justice Rose Bird will have the last word.”

“She will spare my life as she has spared the lives of other condemned men on death row,” the note read.

The attorney for the convicted murderer whose signature appears at the bottom branded the letter a fake and “sabotage.” He also questioned the authenticity of a similar letter, supposedly written by a co-defendant, that was mailed to the judge’s home.

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“The letters were offensive to the court, they were offensive to the court system and they were offensive to Chief Justice Bird,” said Howard R. Price, who represents Raynard Cummings, 28, one of two men found guilty in the May, 1983, slaying of Officer Paul Verna in Lake View Terrace.

“I just want to make sure everybody knows my client didn’t write them,” said Price, who has asked San Fernando Superior Court Judge Dana S. Henry to hold a hearing Friday on the issue before she sentences Cummings and co-defendant Kenneth Gay, 27. Price said he is concerned that the letters could prejudice the judge against his client or his motion for a new trial.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Watson, who prosecuted Cummings and Gay, said he is not sure who wrote the letters.

“I don’t have an opinion yet. I have read hundreds of pages of prose by both of these men, and the style is consistent,” said Watson, who has asked handwriting experts to examine the documents.

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If Cummings and Gay are not the authors, then who is?

“There are some strange people in and about the criminal justice system,” Watson said. “I’d just be guessing if I tried to figure out why someone would do that.”

But Price suggested some candidates.

“It clearly is a person who does not like Raynard Cummings,” the defense attorney said. “It could be a snitch in the jail, some citizen who is upset about the case, a crazy person, someone who is angry at Justice Bird, or it could be a police officer.”

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The chief justice, who must run in a confirmation election next year, has been criticized by conservatives for her role in the high court’s overturning convictions or sentences of defendants who have been ordered put to death.

Regardless of their authenticity, Watson and Price both said the letters have added another bizarre twist to an already unusual case.

Cummings and Gay were found guilty May 31 of first-degree murder in the June, 1983, shooting of Verna, 35, who had stopped a car in which the men were passengers for a minor traffic violation.

During their trial, Watson told the jury that the men killed Verna because they were afraid he would arrest them. The ex-convicts were illegally in possession of firearms and had committed a series of robberies in the San Fernando Valley. They were riding in a stolen car driven by Cummings’ wife, Pamela, who did not have a valid driver’s license.

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In July, separate juries recommended that Cummings and Gay be put to death.

Mailed From Van Nuys

The first letter to the judge, purportedly written by Cummings, was postmarked July 24 and mailed from Van Nuys, according to a copy filed in court.

It begins with the title, “The Bird Is the Word,” and continues with a salutation to Judge Henry.

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“Now that my sentence has been affirmed at death, I should like to proffer a few recommendations of my own,” the letter said. “You, a member of the judiciary, are (aware) . . . of the fact that the state Supreme Court will never permit me to die in the gas chamber.

“Chief Justice Rose Bird will have the last word. She will spare my life as she has spared the lives of other condemned men on death row. . . . It is incumbent on his honor that I be allowed a life sentence. . . .

“I am not wholly responsible for the murder of Officer Verna. On the day that he died was a day that God had selected for him. That was the day he was going to die. I was only an instrument of God. Therefore, you can’t blame Mr. Gay and myself for committing murder.”

Sent to Judge’s Home

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A second letter, in apparently similar handwriting, was signed with the name of Kenneth Gay and postmarked Aug. 20 from Pasadena. That letter was addressed to the judge’s home.

In a postscript to the letter, its author said, “I have changed my religion to Judism (sic), therefore to put me in the gas chamber would compare me to the people who went to the chamber in World War II.”

A third and longer letter mailed to the courthouse over Gay’s signature arrived at about the same time. The handwriting differs significantly from that in the other letters.

Gay’s attorney, Daye Shinn, said he believes the third letter was actually written by Gay, but that the other letter over Gay’s signature is a fake. The third letter implores the judge to reopen the Verna investigation.

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