Prospective Night Stalker Jurors Face Death Penalty Questions
The time-consuming but all-important process of jury selection in the Night Stalker trial enters a new phase Monday, and lawyers in the case are now targeting March as a likely starting date for the murder trial.
And, with each passing week, defense lawyer Daniel Hernandez is under growing pressure to find a second attorney to assist him in the trial, which is expected to last one to two years.
The new phase of jury selection begins Monday morning with the first of nearly 300 prospective jurors scheduled to undergo intensive questioning on their views on the death penalty.
This phase will serve to underscore the seriousness of the prosecution’s case against defendant Richard Ramirez. If convicted on any one of 13 first-degree murder counts, his life will be in the hands of the same 12-member jury that will then have to decide whether to send him to prison for life without parole or condemn him to the gas chamber at San Quentin.
Ramirez is charged with murdering 13 Los Angeles County residents in a string of nighttime attacks, mostly in 1985, that also left many others injured. The 28-year-old drifter from El Paso, Tex., is also charged with 30 other serious felonies, including robbery, rape and attempted murder. In addition, he faces charges in San Francisco and in Orange County.
Expected to last about two months, this so-called Hovey phase of jury selection is intended to winnow out prospective jurors who believe their views on capital punishment are so strongly held, either for or against, that they may not be able to apply the law as warranted.
Put another way, the process is designed to eliminate prospective jurors who might automatically vote for--or against--the death penalty without regard to the evidence presented at the trial.
The standard in California trial courts is whether a prospective juror’s views would “prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.” The language comes from a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Wainwright vs. Witt.
Prosecutor Phil Halpin said that, based on his 23 years of experience as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, between 25% and 33% of the current jury pool of 296 Los Angeles County residents may be excused during the Hovey phase, named for a state Supreme Court ruling that requires the sequestered questioning of individual prospective jurors in death-penalty cases.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan said he expects eight or nine prospective jurors to be interviewed each day.
With that number in mind, the judge has scheduled general voir dire to begin Dec. 12, the final phase of jury selection during which Halpin, co-prosecutor Alan S. Yochelson and Hernandez, a San Jose-based attorney, are expected to interview each prospective juror at great length on a variety of topics, ultimately settling on 12 jurors, plus 12 alternates.
Halpin also said that he expects another 10% to 15% of the current 296 prospective jurors to drop out as a result of financial or personal hardship. Although all 296 had survived the earlier phase of jury selection on the question of hardship, some are now expressing second thoughts in a 16-page questionnaire they were required to complete in preparation for the Hovey phase.
The questionnaire, prepared by both sides and Tynan, elicit detailed personal information in addition to views on capital punishment. Such information is to be used as guidance in the process of winnowing the pool of prospective jurors.
Since jury selection began July 21, Arturo Hernandez, the second defense lawyer for Ramirez, has hardly appeared in court, prompting speculation that he has removed himself from the case.
Arturo Hernandez, also of San Jose, and Daniel Hernandez have represented Ramirez since shortly after his arrest on Aug. 31, 1985. The two lawyers are not related.
In recent weeks, Tynan has met behind closed doors numerous times with Daniel Hernandez, presumably about the status of Arturo Hernandez and about Daniel Hernandez’s attempts to find a replacement.
Daniel Hernandez said last week that he may be able to make an announcement about that in early October.