Even in a blue jail jump suit, Richard Howard Payton had the restrained and respectful look of a gentleman last week as he sat before the judge in San Fernando Superior Court waiting to hear his sentence.
That deference is expected from someone in his situation.
Payton, 20, had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for shooting a man in the back on a Pacoima street as the man was trying to escape. He had fled the state for three months before coming home to turn himself in on a murder arrest warrant.
He could be sentenced to as much as eight years in prison. The case against him looked clear.
But there was more to Payton’s case. Court investigators found a subplot about a youth who struggled to rise above a squalid family life, and, just when it appeared he was free, fell back.
Those who investigated Payton’s past said he really was a gentleman who went wrong while trying to do good.
He had, in the words of a probation officer, “demonstrated a great deal of tenacity in obtaining a high school education under unusually negative home conditions and has stayed aloof from criminal activity and drug use though he was surrounded by it.”
Downfall Pieced Together
Payton’s fall, as pieced together from court records, began last June 28 when someone burglarized the Pacoima home of Payton’s paternal half sister, Anita Hayes, where Payton was staying temporarily.
Payton, who was hoping to go to Bakersfield College that fall, had moved in not long before to offer protection to Hayes, a 21-year-old bus driver, after she thought she heard a prowler outside her apartment.
According to testimony at his preliminary hearing, a probation report and a court-ordered psychological profile:
Two days after the burglary, Hayes spotted a man from the neighborhood wearing her jewelry and pressed Payton to confront him. The man said he would take Payton to see another man who sold him the jewelry, Levi Dwayne Harris.
They found Harris walking down a Pacoima street and stopped just as Hayes and a cousin drove up in another car. Hayes began to yell at Harris, demanding her jewelry. Harris yelled back and refused.
Payton was called aside by his cousin, Elizabeth Bunn, who handed him a gun from her purse. (The man who led Payton to the scene said he saw Payton holding the gun earlier, but the prosecutor said he did not believe the man’s testimony.)
Payton Fires Second Time
Payton asked Harris to give the jewelry back. Instead, Harris stepped toward Payton. Payton fired, hitting Harris in the thigh. Harris ran, trying to scramble over a gate, and Payton fired again, killing him.
Payton later told authorities he had never fired a gun before and was only trying to protect his sister. “I acted irrational because of that,” he said. “I’m not a violent person.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth Barshop, the prosecutor, said he had no reason to doubt that.
A check of the dead man’s record showed a history of drug offenses and burglaries. On the other hand, probation investigators and even the prosecutor were impressed by Payton’s record, which consisted of three earlier brushes with the law, but no prosecutions.
As a juvenile, he was arrested on suspicion of a car theft but the charge was dropped for unexplained reasons. In 1985 he was accused of assault with a deadly weapon but the charge was dismissed. Payton’s probation report concluded that the charge was a mistake resulting from an argument between Payton and his girlfriend’s mother, who wrote a letter to the court praising Payton as the most gentle person her daughter had ever dated.
Spent Two Days in Jail
Payton was arrested in 1985 for refusing to provide identification to an officer investigating a crime he was not involved in. That charge was dropped when it was discovered he had an outstanding traffic warrant. He was released by a judge after spending two days in jail.
The prosecutor said he considered Payton’s record remarkably good in light of the environment Payton grew up in.
A psychiatric profile prepared for Payton’s probation report said he was one of three children, by different fathers, of Dorothy Blue Payton, 42. Payton’s mother told court-appointed criminologist Sheila Balkan that her first husband was an alcoholic who left her and died 10 years ago. Her second husband, Richard Payton’s father, developed a heroin habit and spent time in prison, she said.
When Payton was 10, his mother spent a year in Sybil Brand Institute for Women on drug and prostitution charges, the criminologist’s report said.
In spite of her shortcomings as a mother, her son did well, taking care of himself and getting to school on time every day, Dorothy Payton told the criminologist.
“Having a mother as fast as I was, he had to learn how to do things for himself,” the criminologist’s report quoted her as saying.
Good Character Stressed
Balkan said everyone she and her assistant interviewed in Pacoima regarded Payton as a man of unusually good character.
A neighbor remembered that he was “always cooperative and we never heard Richard using street language” and that he stayed away from the many drug users in the neighborhood. Ernest Howard, the chairman of a Pacoima youth athletic foundation, said he coached Payton for six years in baseball.
“Considering how difficult it is for the youth in our community to survive, I feel it is a true credit to Richard’s character that he graduated when most don’t,” Howard said.
Payton’s San Fernando High School football coach, Dwight Chapman, remembered him as “one of the biggest success stories I have seen in all my years of coaching.” In spite of the abuse he took from teammates because he had little talent, Payton stuck with the team three years, coming to practice earlier than others and leaving later until he earned a starting spot in his senior year, Chapman said.
Chapman, who was also a dean of students at the time, described Payton as “a gentleman who was always trying to help people out.” He recalled that Payton once silenced several students who were harassing a teacher.
A court-appointed psychiatrist described Payton as “a passive individual with a proclivity to store frustrations until rare aggressive outbursts occur.” He concluded that Payton was not a threat to the community and would benefit from “assertiveness training.”
Mother Levels Blame
Dorothy Payton blames the shooting on her son’s sister and cousin. “Those girls just kept messing over that jewelry and got him in the middle of it,” she said.
Balkan called the shooting a result of “moral panic” stemming from family loyalty and the desire to protect his sister.
The probation officer wrote that the homicide was the “culmination of an unfortunate set of circumstances involving the suspected burglary of his stepsister’s house by the victim and the stepsister’s pressuring him to do something about it.” (Dorothy Payton told Balkan that Hayes is Payton’s paternal half sister, not his stepsister.)
The probation officer recommended that Payton, though an adult, be sentenced to the California Youth Authority where he would not be held with hardened adult criminals.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Brodey argued this was one case in which a man guilty of voluntary manslaughter should be set free. “Richard was a person who would run from a fight,” Brodey said. “This is a situation you can be sure will never happen in Richard’s life again.”
Judge Appears Unmoved
“I’m glad you can assure me of that,” Judge Robert D. Fratianne snapped back, appearing unmoved.
The prosecutor, Barshop, argued that Payton deserved prison, no matter how good a person he is. If Payton had run from that fight, “Richard would not be here and Dwayne would be alive today,” he said.
“There is a victim here who is dead,” he said. “I don’t care if he is the worst person in the world. He is dead because of the actions of Mr. Payton.”
Fratianne denied probation. But he imposed the minimum prison sentence of three years and suspended the two-year additional sentence for the use of a gun.
Then he addressed Payton.
“Let me tell you something,” he said sternly. “This is not going to wreck your life. I’m pretty sure you’ll come out of it a better person.”
Payton declined an offer by the judge to serve his time in the youth authority, opting instead to go through a 120-day evaluation in state prison. Payton believes prison authorities will send him back and advise the judge to release him on probation--which is still a possibility, although unlikely, his attorney said.
Later, in chambers, the judge said he was moved by Payton’s past.
“When I walked out there I was really thinking of doing the eight,” he said, referring to the maximum prison term. But he said he was persuaded that Payton was truly remorseful and could be rehabilitated.
“Even the good Lord forgives,” he said.