Vista Judge Gives Transient the Death Penalty for Murder


In what prosecutors say is the first North County death sentence, an Oceanside transient on Tuesday was ordered to die in the gas chamber for the stabbing death of his girlfriend’s mother in Escondido two years ago.

Kurt Michaels, 24, a former Marine, appeared impassive as Vista Superior Court Judge J. Morgan Lester pronounced the sentence and ordered him taken to San Quentin state prison within 10 days.

The death sentence is automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Michaels becomes the 286th resident of Death Row since California reinstituted the death penalty in 1978, a state Department of Corrections spokeswoman said Tuesday. San Diego County jurors sent 10 of them.


Michaels was convicted June 6 of the first-degree murder of JoAnn Clemons on Oct. 2, 1988. Michaels was described by Lester as the leader of a “death squad” that broke into Clemons’ apartment in the 1300 block of East Grand Avenue, robbed her, burglarized her apartment, and then repeatedly stabbed her, breaking one knife and fetching a second from a kitchen drawer to slash her throat.

Michaels confessed to Escondido police that he killed the 41-year-old woman, but said he did it because she was abusing her daughter--his girlfriend, Christina, who was 17 at the time.

Among the accomplices, Christina Clemons pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for asking Michaels to kill her mother and was sentenced to the California Youth Authority until she turns 25. Co-assailant Darren Popik, 23, was convicted earlier this year of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and Joseph R. Paulk III, 24, pleaded guilty Monday to voluntary manslaughter and residential robbery for his role as the getaway driver. He will be sentenced Sept. 7.

Michaels served as his own attorney after refusing to cooperate with three of four attorneys assigned to represent him. Attorney Mark Chambers sat at the defense table to offer legal guidance, and in fact handled most of the legal chores, including questioning jurors before the start of trial, examining witnesses and making closing arguments. Another court-appointed legal adviser, attorney Richard Grossberg, sat in the audience during the trial at the judge’s instructions but was all but ignored by Michaels, who told the judge he wanted nothing to do with Grossberg.

The jury that convicted Michaels of first-degree murder also found four special circumstances that paved the way for the death penalty: murder while lying in wait, for financial gain (the victim’s insurance money), during the commission of a robbery and during the commission of a burglary.

On June 21, the same jury returned with its unanimous recommendation that Michaels be sentenced to death. The alternative was life in prison without the possibility of parole.


On Tuesday, after reciting the facts of the case but making little additional comment, Judge Lester concurred with the jury’s recommendation.

“The appropriate sentence in this case is death,” he said, after recounting Michaels’ prior convictions involving the use of guns and knives, and his boasting of being a tough street thug willing to “tax” those who grieved him. After allowing Michaels, who was shackled to his chair by a waist chain, to remain seated for the formal pronouncement, the judge concluded:

“You are to die in the gas chamber.”

Among those in the courtroom were several jurors who returned to witness the sentencing.

“It’s like closing the book, so I could get on with my life,” said Lanelle Mathis, 36, of San Marcos, who said she was one of the eight jurors who voted in favor of the death penalty after the first poll among them.

“I always believed in the death penalty, but that’s easy to say until you’re confronted with it,” she said.

Mathis said she abides by her decision, even after having had several weeks to think about it.

“I don’t personally hate Kurt Michaels . . . and I got a big knot in my stomach when we decided death, but I still hold to my decision,” she said.


Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Brodrick, who, like others involved in the trial, was prohibited from speaking publicly about it until Tuesday’s final pronouncement because of Lester’s gag order, said his biggest fear in the trial was that “the jury might get emotional and sidetracked on the child abuse issue and not follow the law.”

Chambers said Michaels has since shown remorse for the killing. “If he were faced with the same set of circumstances today, but off drugs and off the streets, he would not have participated in that murder,” the attorney said. “He’s sorry for having gotten involved and having orchestrated it.”

Chambers said Michaels was “taken aback” by the jury’s death verdict in June.

“He believes he should be punished for what he did to JoAnn Clemons, but he thinks death is too harsh a penalty, given what JoAnn Clemons did to her daughter,” Chambers said of Michaels.

On Tuesday, Lester also sentenced Michaels to concurrent terms of six years in state prison for the burglary and robbery, and rejected a motion by Michaels for a new trial on the grounds that he was inadequately assisted by Chambers.

In denying the motion, Lester noted that he strongly discouraged Michaels from serving as his own attorney--in a 2 1/2-hour lecture that included the warning to Michaels at the time that, if he should be convicted, he could not appeal on the basis that he had inadequate representation.

The death sentence was the first ever pronounced by Lester, the judge said afterward.

It was Brodrick’s first murder case.