The state Supreme Court Thursday reversed two death penalty verdicts and a third case where a man was sentenced to life in prison without parole for murdering a witness to a burglary he had committed.
In reversing the life sentence of David D. Weidert, the court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, said state law allows for sentences of either death or life in prison without parole for murdering someone to prevent them from testifying in a “criminal proceeding.”
But by a 5-2 vote, the court pointed out that when Weidert committed the burglary, he was 17 1/2, thus a juvenile. Under the law, juvenile proceedings are not considered criminal proceedings. So the witness and murder victim, Michael Morganti, could not have testified at a “criminal proceeding,” but merely a juvenile proceeding.
According to court records, Weidert and a friend took Morganti to an isolated spot in Fresno County, told him to dig a hole with a shovel and get in. They then took turns hitting him with a bat and Weidert strangled him with a wire.
“From a policy point of view, perhaps the killing of any witness--whether that witness’ testimony was to be elicited in a proceeding denominated criminal, juvenile, traffic, quasi-criminal, probate, civil, legislative or administrative--should be a criminal offense,” Bird wrote.
But she added that the court was “limited by the language” of a 1978 law passed by an initiative promoted by then-Sen. John Briggs. That initiative has been criticized by prosecutors and defense lawyers for its ambiguities and sloppy wording.
“The plain fact is that the electorate . . . enacted a provision which contains no language applicable to juvenile proceedings,” Bird wrote.
Dissenting Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, joined by Justice Stanley Mosk, called the majority’s result “intolerable,” adding it was “highly unlikely” that voters intended that “the phrase criminal proceedings would exclude a Juvenile Court delinquency proceeding.” He pointed out that Weidert could have been charged as an adult for the burglary that Morganti witnessed.
In other cases, the court:
- Reversed by a 4-2 vote the death sentence of Lavell Frierson. In 1980, the court reversed Frierson’s first conviction for the 1978 robbery and murder of a Peruvian airline employee near Los Angeles International Airport, finding then that his trial lawyer had failed to investigate the possibility of presenting a diminished capacity defense. Frierson was retried for the crime and again sentenced to death.
Lawyer at Fault Again
On Thursday, the court again found his lawyer failed to adequately represent him, even though the lawyer investigated the diminished capacity defense. Frierson had demanded that the lawyer claim he suffered from diminished capacity because of Frierson’s PCP use. The lawyer chose not to cite drug use in the guilt phase of the trial, but rather to use it in the penalty phase, when jurors decided whether to sentence him to life in prison or death. The court concluded that Frierson had a fundamental right to have his lawyer present the defense of diminished capacity.
- Reversed the death sentence of Raymond Rudy Chavez. The court held that the prosecution failed to prove that Chavez intended to kill Joseph Mossa during a robbery in Tulare County. The reversal was based on previous rulings in which the court held that before a defendant can be sentenced to death, it must be proved he intended to commit the murder.