A San Diego federal judge was ordered Wednesday to reconsider whether convicted decapitation killer Bernard Lee Hamilton’s rights were violated because Hamilton was shackled at the trial.
U. S. District Judge Rudi Brewster must rule on the question again, the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered, because Brewster improperly rejected Hamilton’s claim without reviewing the record of his two-month trial in 1980.
The appeals court directed Brewster to study the trial record and decide whether a fact-finding hearing is required before ruling again on the shackling issue. Hamilton, 38, remains on Death Row at San Quentin.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas McArdle, one of Hamilton’s prosecutors, said he was confident that the ruling will not disturb the conclusion that Hamilton received a fair trial.
“I have no doubt at all that the shackling was ordered for good cause and it was properly implemented under the law,” McArdle said.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Pat Zaharopoulos, the state’s lawyer for Hamilton’s appeals, said a fact-finding hearing may actually be needed because it’s not clear from the trial record whether the shackles were visible to the jury.
Although Zaharopoulos said “there’s always a little bit of anxiety when you’re going back like this,” she said she was convinced that the shackling was justified.
Hamilton was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for the killing of Eleanore Frances Buchanan, 24, a mother of two, including a 3-week-old baby. Her headless and handless body was found dumped in the Pine Valley area May 31, 1979, the day after she disappeared after a college night class.
Hamilton was arrested about 10 days later in Oklahoma, in Buchanan’s van. He was also convicted of burglary, robbery and kidnaping in the case.
The California Supreme Court reversed Hamilton’s death sentence on Dec. 31, 1985, saying the jury had not been instructed to find that Hamilton intended to kill. The court said the body could have been dismembered after an accidental killing.
But, after a new majority on the court overruled the intent-to-kill requirement in a 1987 case, it granted prosecutors’ request for a rehearing and upheld Hamilton’s death sentence on May 19, 1988.
The U. S. Supreme Court turned down a hearing on Hamilton’s appeal, but he has made several other federal court challenges to his conviction. Hamilton has filed those challenges without the help of an attorney, though Tustin lawyer Richard C. Camino was appointed to argue the current case before the appellate court. Camino was not available Wednesday for comment.
The current challenge centers on former San Diego Superior Court Judge Franklin Orfield’s decision to shackle Hamilton during most of the trial. Hamilton contends that the move violated his due process rights.
Orfield’s decision, Zaharopoulos said, was precipitated by Hamilton’s violent behavior outside the courtroom before the trial began. Hamilton attacked a member of his defense team during a pretrial jailhouse conference, then “sucker-punched” defense lawyer Thomas J. Ryan in the jaw during a jail visit a few days later, Zaharopoulos said.
Agreed to Have Brace Removed
Ryan said Wednesday that he preferred not to talk about the incident. “I hope (Hamilton) gets a full and fair hearing before Judge Brewster,” Ryan said.
Orfield at first ordered Hamilton to wear a leg brace in court but agreed to have it removed after prosecutors asked and Hamilton complained of discomfort, Zaharopoulos said.
The judge changed his mind and ordered Hamilton shackled when, during jury selection, Hamilton refused to leave his cell, was dragged out by guards, challenged one to a fight and spit in an officer’s face, Zaharopoulos said. In addition, Hamilton said “he was going to attack someone--the defense team, the marshals and possibly the judge himself,” she said.
During the trial, however, Hamilton “was an absolute Boy Scout,” Zaharopoulos said. “The judge had no way of knowing that and maybe the shackling influenced that. There were no outbursts of any kind. (Hamilton) behaved himself.”
Didn’t Look at Trial Record
In finding the shackling justified, Brewster reviewed only the legal papers filed by Hamilton and the state and did not actually look at the trial record itself, the appeals court said.
Writing for the panel, Judge Mary M. Schroeder ordered Brewster to review the record to decide whether “the threat of violence or disturbance was serious enough to justify the shackling of Hamilton throughout his lengthy trial.”
Judges Betty B. Fletcher and Stephen S. Trott concurred in the opinion.
The ruling was the second in two days from 9th Circuit judges on shackling, which Schroeder said was justified only “as a last resort.” On Tuesday, a different panel of the court upheld a ruling overturning the murder convictions of former Black Panther Johnny Spain in the 1971 deaths of two prison guards, finding that Spain had been needlessly shackled during his trial.