Victim Identified Pizza Murder Suspect : Jury Hears Slain Man’s Words
A paramedic testified Wednesday that a dying South Carolina pizza deliveryman, suffering gunshot wounds to his head, identified his assailant as Mitchell Carleton Sims, who last month was convicted of killing a Glendale pizzeria employee.
The testimony before a Pasadena Superior Court jury came at the start of the penalty trial for Sims, 26, who was convicted in the 1985 torture-slaying of Domino’s Pizza deliveryman John Steven Harrigan, 21.
Citing the South Carolina and Glendale cases, Deputy Dist. Atty. Terry A. Green said Sims, also a former Domino’s pizza employee, deserves the death penalty. South Carolina authorities will extradite Sims to stand trial for murders of two Domino’s workers in that state.
Gary Melke, 24, one of Sims’ alleged victims in Hanahan, S.C., identified Sims, with whom he had worked in the pizza shop. Sims allegedly robbed the store and shot Melke in the temple, the jaw, the base of the skull and the back of the neck. Still, Melke managed to drive part-way and walk the rest to the local police station, a half-mile from the pizza store. Once inside the lobby Melke, fell to his knees at the front desk.
“He was pawing on the wall of the police lobby . . . . He was spewing blood from his mouth,” testified George Pledger of the Hanahan Fire Department, the paramedic who treated Melke during the eight-mile ambulance ride to a trauma center in Charleston.
Pledger testified that Melke was fully conscious during the ambulance ride and for 12 hours at the hospital, despite his severe wounds. At the hospital, Pledger said he asked Melke if he could describe his attacker.
“He said, ‘Sims.’ I asked the question again, and he said, ‘Mitch Sims,’ ” Pledger told the jury.
Hanahan police officer Michelle D. Nadeau testified on Tuesday that she, too, asked Melke if he knew the identity of his attacker. “He said, yes he did and he said it was Mitch Sims. I asked him the question several times and he repeated the same name every time,” she said during an earlier hearing in which jurors were not present.
Presiding Judge Jack B. Tso ruled this week that Melke’s statements to the Hanahan officials were “dying declarations” and could be used against Sims. That ruling came after Green argued that Melke knew he was going to die. Otherwise, hearsay statements from a dead victim usually cannot be used as evidence because the defendant is unable to confront his accuser.
Both in the police station and during the 13-minute ambulance trip, Pledger said Melke repeatedly pleaded, “Please don’t let me die,” and at one point said, “I feel like I’m going to die.”
However, defense attorney Morton P. Borenstein cited Melke’s attempt to get help as proof that he had not abandoned all hope of survival.
During the shooting at the South Carolina pizzeria, a second employee, Christopher Zerr, 24, died at the scene. Melke slipped into a coma the day of the attack and died five days later.
Borenstein warned jurors Wednesday against convicting Sims for the yet untried South Carolina murders and told them it is “unnecessary and inappropriate” for Sims to receive the death penalty for Harrigan’s death.
Testimony in the trial was delayed Monday after the Tso and the attorneys spent the day questioning jurors individually, some of whom charged fellow jurors with discussing the case outside the courtroom.
Under questioning, alternate juror Maria Ramirez testified that juror Jolinda Karlberg had told her the morning the verdict was rendered that she had decided Sims was guilty “from day one.”
Karlberg denied making any statements to jurors or alternates.
Calling Karlberg’s testimony “so outright, so convincing” Tso denied Borenstein’s requests for a mistrial or new trial.
During testimony from jurors Monday, Harrigan’s mother, who was watching the trial from a front-row seat, burst into tears. Sims, who has so far appeared uninterested in the trial, turned around and looked at the weeping Mrs. Harrigan, shot a glance at a nearby reporter and quietly laughed to himself.