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Kraft Trial Becomes a Civics Lesson on Legalities

Times Staff Writer

Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt. James A. Sidebotham has called the Randy Kraft serial murder case “an investigator’s nightmare.” Likewise, sorting out some of the facts about the case may be a little nightmarish for people trying to follow the trial, which enters its third week today in Santa Ana.

Kraft, a 43-year-old computer consultant from Long Beach, is charged with 16 Orange County murders. But prosecutors say they have also linked him with 29 other slayings and may introduce evidence relating to those killings in seeking the death penalty against him.

Here are some questions observers of the trial have raised so far:

Question: How can prosecutors tell jurors about killings they intend to tie to Kraft if he is not charged with committing them?

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Answer: If Kraft is convicted of at least two of the 16 murders with which he has been formally charged, a penalty phase will be conducted. Prosecutors in a penalty phase can introduce evidence of a defendant’s prior acts of violence as well as any prior criminal convictions, whether violent or nonviolent.

Prosecutors say they will introduce evidence of some or all of the 29 killings they have linked with Kraft, even though he has never been tried or convicted on any of them, under the “prior acts of violence” theory.

Q: What is the purpose of a penalty phase?

A: In California, jurors at a penalty phase are asked to decide just one issue: Should the defendant receive the death penalty or life without parole?

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The jurors deliberate on that issue after hearing evidence from both sides. Essentially, jurors are instructed by the judge that if they find that factors of aggravation outweigh factors of mitigation, they may return a death verdict.

Q: What if the jurors at a penalty phase think Kraft may be guilty of these other murders, but they aren’t sure?

A: The judge will instruct them that they cannot consider such evidence in deciding on the death issue unless they believe “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Kraft is guilty of those crimes. That is the same standard used in the guilt phase on the 16 murder charges Kraft faces. That is why attorneys in the case view the penalty phase as being just as important as the guilt phase.

Q: At least seven of the additional 29 killings that have been tied to Kraft fall within the county’s jurisdiction. Why didn’t prosecutors charge Kraft with those murders too?

A: Those killings were added to the case as “factors in aggravation for a penalty phase” only after Kraft’s preliminary hearing in 1983. If prosecutors had added them to the 16 murder charges, it would have necessitated a second preliminary hearing. That would have meant further delays in the Kraft trial.

Q: Can Judge Donald A. McCartin ignore the jury’s verdict in the penalty phase?

A: If the verdict is death, McCartin can reduce that verdict to life without parole. But if the verdict is life without parole, the judge cannot change it to a death sentence.

Q: Do judges often set aside a jury’s death verdict?

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A: It has never happened in Orange County since judges began sentencing defendants under the state’s 1977 capital punishment law.

Q: Why is Kraft himself cross-examining jurors when he has two attorneys in court with him?

A: Prosecutors had wondered about this before the trial. They tried to get a court order taking away Kraft’s court-approved status as co-counsel for himself, but McCartin refused.

A previous judge gave Kraft “limited” co-counsel status after his lawyers argued that, because Kraft is gay, he has certain insights that will be helpful in questioning some witnesses. Kraft will not be permitted to question most of the witnesses, and so far his role as an advocate has been minor.

Q: What happens if Kraft is acquitted of all 16 murder charges. Does he walk out of the courtroom a free man?

A: No. He is under indictment in Michigan in two murders, and in Oregon in three of six murders he is accused of committing there. The other Oregon jurisdictions--and Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, where some of the killings that have been linked with Kraft are believed to have occurred--are awaiting the results of the Orange County trial before acting.


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