Supreme Court Orders Trial Judge to Reconsider 1983 Death Sentence

Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court on Monday ordered a trial judge to reconsider the death sentence of a San Bernardino man convicted in the 1981 strangling of the mother of two young children during a burglary.

The justices found unanimously that the judge failed to independently weigh the evidence against defendant Louis Lujan Bonillas and to adequately state his reasons for upholding the jury’s verdict of death, as required by law.

At the trial, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Fenton E. Jones said he “probably” would not have imposed the death sentence on Bonillas. But Jones added that his objection was to capital punishment itself, and that under the law, he believed he lacked authority to reverse the jury’s verdict.


The high court, in an opinion by Justice Marcus M. Kaufman, pointed out that trial judges have full authority to reverse a jury’s verdict of death and to impose a sentence of life without parole.

The court said Jones’ statements were “insufficiently specific” to determine how, or even whether, he had weighed the factors for or against the death penalty.

But in all other respects, the justices affirmed Bonillas’ conviction for first-degree murder and said a full-scale retrial of the penalty phase was not needed.

Instead, the justices sent the case back to the trial judge for a “prompt reconsideration” limited to the issue of whether Bonillas should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. Either side then may appeal the judge’s ruling.

State Deputy Atty. Gen. Rudolf Corona Jr., citing the “horrendous nature” of the crime, expressed confidence that the judge “will steel himself and apply the law to the facts of the case and come up with a just result.”

“We feel the death penalty is fully warranted,” Corona said.

John M. Bishop of Riverside, an attorney representing Bonillas on appeal, said that while he was pleased the sentence had been set aside, “we felt we could have done better” by winning a full-scale retrial of the case.


Bonillas, now 39, was charged with the brutal murder of Linda Martinez, a next-door neighbor who had given birth to her second child only five weeks earlier.

Authorities said Bonillas entered the Martinez home to steal a television set but was discovered by the victim when she returned.

During a struggle, Martinez was struck on the head and strangled with a belt torn from her dress. Her genital area was penetrated by a foreign object.

A San Bernardino Superior Court jury convicted Bonillas in 1983 and returned a verdict of death. Defense counsel, as required by law, then asked Jones to modify the sentence to life in prison.

The judge said that “. . . I probably wouldn’t, if I had been handling the situation, I would not have given the death penalty .”

“I’m not sure, but I think that is probably because of my objection, perhaps, to the death penalty itself, rather than to the law that requires the death penalty to be given in certain circumstances,” he said.


Jones said he did not believe the jury had made any “errors in law” and that the circumstances favoring the death penalty “did exceed” the circumstances against it.

“I don’t think I have any right in that situation to reverse the verdict of the jury, and I’m not going to do so at this time,” he said.

The high court concluded that, apparently, the judge believed that he had no right to modify the penalty recommended by the jury.

“But that is not the law,” Kaufman wrote in a 71-page opinion. “If, after independently reweighing and giving consideration to the evidence, the trial judge is of the view that the jury’s findings and verdicts . . . are contrary to the evidence as re-weighed by him, he has full authority and the duty to modify the verdict of death returned by the jury.”