Citing the “astonishing cruelty” of his crimes, the state Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld the death sentence of Lawrence Sigmond Bittaker in the 1979 kidnap, rape and torture murders of five teen-age girls in Los Angeles County.
Bittaker, now 48, was convicted in a series of slayings in which he and an accomplice lured young hitchhikers into a van and then attacked them with a sledgehammer, ice pick, vice grips and other weapons. The final screams of one of the girls were tape-recorded by her assailants.
The court, in an opinion by Justice Allen E. Broussard, rejected dozens of legal claims by Bittaker challenging the validity of his conviction and sentence. Any procedural errors at the trial were minor and, in view of the strong evidence against Bittaker, could not have affected the verdict, the court said.
“This case was, as the prosecutor said, one of the most horrendous murder cases ever tried in this state,” wrote Broussard, often a dissenter in capital rulings by the conservative-led court.
“The evidence was graphic and compelling, showing not only the defendant’s commission of the crimes, but also (his) careful and deliberate planning of the crimes, the astonishing cruelty with which they were committed and his intent to continue to commit crimes of this character,” he wrote.
In a second ruling Thursday, the court unanimously overturned the conviction of a black Sacramento man sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 22-year-old white Placer County woman in 1980.
The court said that the trial of Kenneth D. Williams, 28, should have been transferred to another venue in view of its racial overtones, the relative prominence of the victim’s family, intensive local publicity and other factors that showed a “reasonable likelihood” that he would be denied a fair trial.
The justices emphasized that they were not ruling that a “sensational” case could not be fairly tried in a small community. But where the family, prosecutor and prosecuting witnesses are well known and the defendant is an outsider, “the risk is enormously high that the verdict may be based on a desire for revenge, or the fear of social ostracism,” Justice Marcus M. Kaufman wrote for the court.
Bittaker, a Burbank man who had previously spent 16 years in prison for other crimes, was accused along with Roy Norris of killing Lucinda Schaefer, 16; Andrea Hall, 18; Jacqueline Gilliam, 15; Leah Lamp, 13, and Shirley Ledford, 16.
Norris, a convicted rapist whom Bittaker had befriended in prison, testified against Bittaker at trial under a bargain with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
At the trial, prosecutors presented evidence showing how Bittaker and Norris plotted to capture the victims and then rape and torture them before they were finally put to death. In one instance, Bittaker remained in contact with Norris by walkie-talkie as Bittaker forced a victim up a hill where he took photographs of her performing a sexual act.
Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Kay called Bittaker a “monster” whose crimes were more brutal than those committed by the Charles Manson gang. Fellow jail inmates testified that Bittaker signed autographs for them using the nickname “Pliers Bittaker,” a reference to a tool he used to torture victims.
Bittaker denied that he committed the killings, blaming them on Norris. A psychologist testified for the defense that Bittaker was intelligent, with an I.Q. of 138, but suffered from “an inability to empathize with others.” He was convicted and sentenced to death in February, 1981.
In Thursday’s ruling, the justices found that the prosecutor, in arguments before the jury, improperly implied that jurors need only “arithmetically” weigh factors favoring the death penalty against factors favoring leniency--a process he said “takes some of the burden off you.”
Such language, Broussard said, incorrectly suggests that jurors do not have the “ultimate burden” of deciding whether the defendant should live or die. But despite the prosecutor’s erroneous argument, the whole record of the case indicates “no danger that the jury was misled into undertaking a narrowly limited, mathematical analysis of the evidence” and the law, Broussard wrote.
The overwhelming evidence indicated that Bittaker “not only demonstrates, but glories in his readiness to commit murder, rape and torture,” the justice said, and the prosecution “properly emphasized such facts to show that the defendant deserved the death penalty.”