High Court Upsets Death Sentence of Fresno County Man
A widely divided state Supreme Court on Monday overturned the death sentence of a Fresno County man convicted of murdering his estranged wife to avoid paying nearly $49,000 he owed her in a divorce settlement.
The justices, filing four separate opinions, upheld the conviction but, by a vote of 4 to 3, ordered a new penalty trial for Peter Edelbacher, 33, found guilty of murder for financial gain in the slaying of Lela Schwartz-Edelbacher, 25, in April, 1981.
Only weeks before the woman was fatally shot in the back, Edelbacher, a painting contractor, had been acquitted of spousal rape in the first such trial of its kind in the county under a new state law making the act a crime.
The court majority concluded Monday that the trial judge’s instructions and arguments by the prosecution may have misled the jury as to its discretion and personal responsibility in deciding whether Edelbacher should be sent to the gas chamber or receive the alternative penalty, life in prison without parole.
Statements by the prosecutor indicating that jurors should not exercise their “moral judgments” in deciding the sentence were “gravely misleading,” Justice Marcus M. Kaufman wrote in the court’s lead opinion.
The justices, however, rejected Edelbacher’s contention that he should not have had to face the capital charge of murder for financial gain merely because he was trying to avoid the financial obligation of paying money owed in the settlement. Such a murder charge, he argued, should be limited to cases involving hired killers, murder for an inheritance or a killing for insurance benefits.
But the court, reaffirming past rulings, said the issue was only whether the murder had been committed in the expectation of obtaining a “desired financial gain.”
“It has been widely recognized that murder for financial gain is an especially vile crime for which the death penalty may appropriately be imposed,” Kaufman wrote.
“The (ruling) urged by the defendant would result in an arbitrary and irrational distinction . . . since a killing to avoid a loss is as basely motivated and repugnant as a killing for a positive reward or profit.”
The decision marked the 19th reversal in 66 capital rulings by the court since the departure of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other court members defeated in the fall, 1986, election.
In an unusual series of votes, all seven justices agreed that the charges and Edelbacher’s conviction should be upheld. The narrow majority to overturn the death sentence was provided by Kaufman, writing a 90-page lead opinion; Justice Stanley Mosk, joined by Justice Allen E. Broussard in a separate concurring opinion, and Justice Edward A. Panelli, writing another separate concurring opinion.
In dissent, Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, joined by Justices John A. Arguelles and David N. Eagleson, contended that any procedural errors in the penalty phase of the trial were harmless and that Edelbacher’s death sentence should be upheld.
Edelbacher was married in 1977, but after the birth of a son the two separated and Lela Edelbacher filed for divorce. In May, 1980, Lela Edelbacher reported that he had raped her and Edelbacher was arrested and released on bail. A few days later, witnesses said, Edelbacher threatened to “blow her . . . head off.”
Later, Edelbacher was acquitted in the locally well-publicized rape case. Meanwhile, a dissolution settlement was reached in which Edelbacher retained the couple’s 44-acre ranch but agreed to pay her $48,730.50 for her interest in the property.
On the night of April 3, 1981, Lela Edelbacher, while in the bedroom of her parents’ home, was struck in the back with a shotgun blast fired through the window.
Edelbacher was charged with murder while lying in wait, murder for financial gain and solicitation to murder another woman who allegedly “knew too much” about the crime. (Edelbacher later pleaded guilty to that charge; there was no attempt on the woman’s life.) The prosecution charged that Edelbacher killed his wife in the belief that he could avoid his debt to her, as well as sidestep a child-support payment of $700 by gaining custody of their son.
In Monday’s ruling, the court concluded that there was a “reasonable possibility” that the jury was misled as to how it should weigh the favorable and unfavorable factors in deciding whether the defendant should live or die.
Kaufman said the trial judge, then-Superior Court Judge Hollis G. Best, had failed to make clear the jury was not to “mechanically” weigh aggravating factors against mitigating factors. Jurors should have been told that they have discretion to “assign whatever value they deem appropriate” to such factors and to take personal responsibility for their individual decisions, the justice said.