San Diego Killer's Death Sentence Upheld by Court

Times Staff Writers

The California Supreme Court Monday upheld the death sentence of a San Diego man who shot and killed a sailor in National City during a September, 1981, robbery that netted $2.50.

In a second case, the court reversed a death sentence but also unanimously ruled for the first time that murdering a fetus can result in capital punishment.

In a third ruling, the court upheld the bulk of a case involving a man convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl in Riverside.

In the San Diego case, the court unanimously affirmed the death penalty for Michael Allen Williams, now 25, convicted more than five years ago of first-degree murder in the slaying of the sailor, Gregory Lock Jr., 22.

Lock was giving Williams and two companions a ride after they helped him start his car in Mission Beach when one of the men, Norman Steeg, forced him off the road at gunpoint. Williams then shot Lock in the back three times as he tried to flee.

The three, who had planned to use Lock's car for a robbery, were arrested several days later in Las Vegas. Steeg was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The third man, Kevin Finckel, turned state's witness and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He is serving 15 years to life in state prison.

'Elated' by Decision

Deputy Dist. Atty. Rupert Linley, the prosecutor, said Monday that he had been monitoring Williams' appeal and was "elated" by the court's decision.

"It's very difficult and stressful to try a death-penalty case, and the brief the defense filed on appeal was 600 pages long, alleging every kind of error imaginable on my part and the judge's part," Linley said. "So it's really gratifying to see the sentence upheld on a 7-0 vote by the Supreme Court."

In the case involving the killing of a fetus, Jerry Bunyard, 38, of Stockton was convicted of a multiple murder for the Nov. 1, 1979, deaths of his wife, Elaine, who was nine months pregnant, and her unborn daughter.

The case was one of at least two before the high court involving the deaths of pregnant women and their fetuses.

The justices Monday affirmed the jury's finding that Bunyard was guilty of the special circumstance of multiple murder and thus could be sentenced to one of state's two most severe punishments--life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

In an opinion by Justice John Arguelles, the court rejected Bunyard's contention that the jury did not specifically find that he intended to kill the unborn child. Arguelles said the panel must have reached that conclusion, given "the unique relationship between a pregnant woman and her unborn fetus."

To carry out the crime, Bunyard hired Earlin Popham, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and testified that Bunyard offered to pay him $1,000 to kill his wife and make it look like suicide. Bunyard complained that she had refused to accept his terms for a divorce and that the unborn child was not his.

Bunyard was not charged with murder-for-hire, but rather faced the death penalty for multiple murder. Murder of a fetus has been against California law since 1973.

Applicable to the Killing

Although the death penalty statute does not specifically mention the murder of a fetus, the court said "it is clear that the multiple murder special circumstance is applicable to the killing by a single act of a pregnant woman and her viable fetus."

"The fact that the victim murdered is an unborn child does not render (Bunyard) less culpable, or the crime less severe, in light of the Legislature's determination that viable fetuses receive the same protection under the murder statute as persons," Arguelles said.

The court rejected Bunyard's other claims that the imposition of the death penalty for killing a fetus amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and that it was out of proportion to what other states do. Laws of only three other states provide that the killer of a fetus can get the death penalty.

"The baby was going to be born that day or the next day, within days," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Joel Carey, who argued the case. "It was a full-term baby. . . . The statute is very clear. Murder is unlawful killing of a human being."

Improper Instruction

The court reversed Bunyard's death sentence on other grounds, finding that jurors were given an improper instruction that was found to be invalid in a 1984 high court ruling.

In the instruction, jurors were told that, if they sentenced Bunyard to life without parole, the alternative to a death sentence, the governor could commute the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

That jury instruction was declared invalid by the court in 1984 because, the court reasoned, it meant jurors would speculate on a governor's future actions and might tilt toward a death verdict.

In the other death penalty case ruling Monday, the court unanimously told the trial judge to correct an oversight in the case of Albert G. Brown and to consider Brown's request for a reduced sentence, something that can be done without retrying the case. Brown was convicted of the Oct. 28, 1980, rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in Riverside. Later that day, he taunted the girl's parents by calling them and saying she would never be seen alive and giving them directions to an orange grove where he had left the body.

Williams, the murderer of the sailor in National City, is one of four convicted killers from San Diego County who have been sentenced to die in the gas chamber, Linley said.

The most notorious is Robert Alton Harris, 35, whose sentence was affirmed by a federal appellate court in this month. Harris was convicted in the 1978 slaying of two teen-aged boys he abducted at gunpoint from the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. He has nearly exhausted his appeals and, because his case is further along procedurally than that of other Death Row inmates, could become the first person executed in California since 1967.

Bernard Lee Hamilton was sentenced to death for the 1979 kidnaping, robbery and murder of Eleanore Frances Buchanan, the mother of a 3-week-old child. The woman was found with her head and hands cut off after she disappeared following a night class at Mesa College. Hamilton's sentence--reversed in 1985 under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird--was upheld on May 20 by the Lucas court.

The fourth local defendant facing a death sentence is Joselito Cinco, convicted in February of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two San Diego police officers in Balboa Park.

The court has ruled on 33 death-sentence appeals this year and has upheld 26 death sentences.

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