The Supreme Court Monday ordered a new trial for a man convicted in the frenzied "Halloween II" murders of an elderly Fullerton couple in 1982.
The justices let stand a March ruling by the California Supreme Court concluding that police had flagrantly violated the rights of Richard Delmer Boyer to gain a confession to the stabbing murders of Aileen and Francis Harbitz.
The case was dubbed the "Halloween II" murders because Boyer, though admitting to the crime, blamed his actions on a drug-induced "flashback" to a gruesome stabbing scene in the horror movie. Unpersuaded, an Orange County jury convicted him of first degree murder in 1984 and Boyer, 31, was later sentenced to death.
Though Monday's decision means that Boyer's taped confession may not be used during a new trial set for March, prosecutors say they still have a strong case.
They can use the testimony of a man who drove Boyer to the Harbitz residence, as well as physical evidence obtained during the investigation.
The March ruling from the California Supreme Court was considered a surprise because three law-and-order appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian joined a 5-2 majority to overturn Boyer's conviction. The state court concluded that Fullerton police officers had illegally arrested Boyer and then had questioned him after he asked to have a lawyer present.
On Dec. 14, 1982, a week after the murders, police learned that Boyer had done yard work for the Harbitz family and borrowed money from them. Though lacking a warrant or "probable cause" to arrest Boyer, four officers went to Boyer's El Monte home and picked him up for questioning. The officers said he came voluntarily.
The state court disagreed. It pointed out the two officers had guns drawn and told Boyer to "freeze" when he tried to go out the back door. The police conduct "suggested they did not intend to take 'no' for an answer," Justice David N. Eagleson wrote.
At the station house in Fullerton, the detectives aggressively questioned Boyer for more than an hour and told him--falsely--that they had enough evidence to convict him. At several points in the taped conversation, they also ignored his requests to have a lawyer. Under the Miranda rule and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, police must stop interrogating a suspect who asks for a lawyer until one is provided.
For their part, Fullerton detectives noted they had stopped questioning Boyer and were about to send him home when the man blurted out his confession.
"You're right. I can't live with it," Boyer shouted out to Detective Richard Lewis. "I did it. I didn't mean to do it. But I did it."
In their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for the state contended that Boyer's "spontaneous outburst" should not be suppressed because it occurred well after the police questioning had ended. The justices considered the appeal during several closed-door conferences, but Monday denied it without comment. (California vs. Boyer, 89-40.)