The state Supreme Court on Monday reversed the death sentence of the convicted killer of a 12-year-old girl, ruling that jurors had been improperly told that a life sentence could be commuted to permit his release on parole.
The justices unanimously upheld the conviction but struck down the death penalty for Donald Griffin, 39, found guilty in the 1979 murder, rape and sodomy attack on Janice Kelly Wilson, his stepdaughter, in Kerman, Calif.
As in previous rulings, the court stood by a controversial decision issued under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird that invalidated a provision of the 1978 death penalty initiative. The initiative had required that judges tell jurors that a sentence of life without parole can be commuted by the governor to allow for parole.
“The instruction creates the risk that the jury will be misled and will make its penalty determination on the basis of speculation and misinformation,” Justice Allen E. Broussard wrote for the court Monday. “We do not countenance such a risk.”
Even if the jury is accurately told the governor can commute any sentence--including death or life in prison--such an instruction improperly invites jurors to speculate beyond their verdict, Broussard said.
The instruction was first invalidated by the Bird court in 1982 as a violation of the federal Constitution on the grounds that it could mislead jurors into erroneously believing that a vote for death was the only way to keep a dangerous criminal from being released.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision the following year, concluding that there was no federal constitutional violation. But the state court responded in 1984 by invalidating the instruction again, this time on grounds that it violated the state Constitution, an action that ordinarily protects a ruling from reversal by a federal court.
In Griffin’s 1980 trial, the jury, as required under the initiative, was instructed by the judge that a life-without-parole sentence could be commuted by the governor. But Griffin’s lawyer, trying to prevent jurors from voting for death in order to prevent parole, told the jury the governor could also commute the death penalty.
In urging the justices to uphold Griffin’s death sentence, state prosecutors argued that any harm from the instruction was overcome when jurors were correctly informed that the governor could commute either a death or life-without-parole sentence.
But Broussard, quoting from the state high court’s 1984 ruling, said that even a “totally accurate” instruction still would violate the state constitutional guarantee of due process.
Any reference to commutation “invites the jury to consider matters that are both totally speculative and that should not . . . influence the jury’s determination,” he wrote.
In recent rulings, the court has said it would uphold a death sentence where the since-invalidated instruction was given--but only where the trial judge had also told jurors not to consider commutation or a pardon in reaching their verdict.
Under Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, the court has reversed 15 death sentences in 55 capital rulings.
State Deputy Atty. Gen. George M. Hendrickson said Fresno County prosecutors will decide in future proceedings whether to again seek the death penalty for Griffin.
“My feeling had been that any jury hearing the facts of this case would have imposed the death penalty, and I still feel that way,” Hendrickson said.
Griffin’s lawyer was not available for comment.
A laborer with no criminal record, Griffin was accused of a brutal sexual assault and stabbing attack on his stepdaughter. He first reported the girl was missing and joined in a search. Her badly mutilated body was discovered on the side of a rural road.
Griffin finally admitted the murder but denied he had sexually assaulted the girl, a charge that under law enables prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases of first-degree murder.