Criminal defense lawyer Ron Slick has a unique legacy: Eight of his clients have been sentenced to die in California’s gas chamber.
That is a Death Row record no prosecutor can match.
As his clients’ cases wind their way through appellate courts, Slick’s record has made him the talk of the defense bar. Some lawyers joke that he has his “own wing” at San Quentin. “A lot of people refer to him as Dr. Death,” said John Yzurdiaga, president of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Assn.
Barbs such as those come not just because Slick has lost so many cases, but because of how he lost them. He worked so fast that critics say he gave new meaning to the words speedy trial.
Other defense lawyers take weeks or months to try complex capital cases. But records show that Slick sometimes spent just a few days on such cases--occasionally a few hours when no death penalty was sought.
Some trial court judges and prosecutors see Slick’s speed as a plus in an overloaded court system. Slick was a “good fighter,” said retired state Supreme Court Justice John A. Arguelles, a Superior Court judge in Long Beach from 1972 to 1984. “But he just didn’t beat issues into the ground.”
However, some of his fellow defense lawyers and, in one case, the California Court of Appeal said Slick failed to properly investigate cases and made ill-advised tactical decisions that sometimes deprived clients of fair trials.
His practices, critics say, illustrate how far a local court system will go to embrace a cooperative, court-appointed lawyer, and how indigent defendants, represented by such a lawyer at public expense, can become victims of a system more interested in disposing of cases than in providing fair trials.
Slick came to public attention last year when an appellate court reversed his client’s 1988 murder conviction, declaring that Slick “did not conduct himself in a manner to be expected of reasonably competent attorneys . . . in that he was not adequately prepared for trial.”
Slick’s client, sentenced to 25 years to life, was granted a new trial because the appellate court found that Slick failed to present the client’s “only potentially meritorious defense.”
Although many convicted murderers blame their lawyers for their fate, reversals for incompetent representation are rare--coming about twice a year in California’s state courts. That is because a convict has to meet a high standard to win a new trial: He must prove that his lawyer’s ineffective actions were not just tactical blunders but were unreasonable and probably resulted in his conviction.
Convicts have alleged that Slick provided “ineffective assistance” at least nine other times. Five of these appeals--two of them involving death sentences--have been rejected. Four, including three with death sentences, are pending.
One pending appeal of a 1987 death sentence alleges that Slick did not challenge the accuracy of eyewitness identifications of his client although there was evidence available to do so.
“He chose to deal with exculpatory evidence by eliminating it,” said Howard Gillingham, the attorney appealing on behalf of the Death Row client.
In another 1987 death penalty case, according to records and interviews, Slick did not introduce ballistics and other evidence that would have enabled him to argue that the prosecution’s only eyewitness--a dope dealer--might have been the killer.
Slick’s performance was “just totally ridiculous,” said Gigi Gordon, the attorney preparing an appeal on behalf of the client, who was spared the gas chamber but sentenced to 45 years to life.
In an interview and in a letter to the State Bar, Slick defended his tactical decisions in those cases and sketched his own background as a “hard-working and dedicated lawyer” who is always prepared.
His speed, he said, is a reflection of who he is: a quick study who approaches his job methodically. He cannot understand why other lawyers, according to a Los Angeles Superior Court study, take an average of three to nine times as long as he does to prepare and try a capital case.
“I just can’t believe the hours that they put in,” he said.
Slick, 48, an affable, plain-spoken native of Binghamton, N.Y., is an aficionado of the Old West who rides horses on weekends, has longhorn steers stitched onto the front pockets of his dress shirts, and keeps books about guns and gunfighters among his law books.
He said he enjoys the “sting of battle” and the “rush” of argument that comes with being a trial lawyer. “The most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” he said, “was to argue that a jury should spare a murderer’s life.”
The first time, Slick said, he argued and won. “I thought I was going to pass out. Not from fear. From excitement.”
Drawn to the law as a second career, he worked as a contracts administrator for an aerospace firm in his 20s and attended Pepperdine Law School at night, graduating in 1972. He said he saw law as a way to go into business for himself.
For years in Long Beach, Slick was influential in deciding which lawyers got the business of representing indigents at public expense. He also led Long Beach Bar Assn. efforts to keep down hourly fees of these court-appointed lawyers so the Board of Supervisors would not be tempted to replace them with a cheaper public defender’s office.
Slick earned nearly $200,000 representing the indigent in 1988. The next year, he answered an ad in a legal newspaper and was appointed a juvenile court referee, the functional equivalent of a judge, in Compton.
Slick has ambitions to advance through judicial ranks, but also has kept his hand in as a lawyer, representing a few paying clients and working as a court-appointed co-counsel in yet another death penalty case.
He said he regards himself as a success. In general, prosecutors win 90% or more of the cases they take to trial. Slick says he has tried 48 murder cases, three of which ended in acquittals--a win rate of about 7%.
Eighteen other accused murderers got what Slick feels were “favorable” results--convictions of lesser crimes or more lenient sentences than prosecutors sought. These included four who got life sentences when prosecutors were seeking death, and a fifth who got a hung jury in a capital case.
In defense work, he said, “there’s more losses than you can count. Maybe you have a tendency to become numb to losses. But by God, the wins sure feel good.”
One of his proudest moments was in 1981 when he convinced a jury that multiple murderer Leonard Brown deserved to live. Brown once gave a teen-age girl the choice of being executed or blinded. When she opted for life, Brown pried out her eyes with a screwdriver, presumably to avoid being identified. Slick said he triumphed by convincing jurors that “the guy was nuts.”
THE GLOVER CASE
Robert Glover was one of Slick’s losses. Glover was convicted of murdering a visitor to his apartment complex.
The prosecution alleged that he was a conspirator, not the triggerman, but that he was just as guilty as the triggerman under the law.
Glover’s mother was upset that her 21-year-old son was facing 25 years to life in prison. She called Los Angeles attorney Bradley Brunon to see if he could help.
Brunon remembers thinking that the mother must have been mistaken when she told him that her son’s trial lasted only one day. “I couldn’t believe a murder case took one day to try,” Brunon said. “I said: ‘Don’t worry, that must be the preliminary hearing.” But he was wrong.
Brunon’s motion for a new trial took longer than the trial. He called the defendant and three other witnesses that Slick had known about but not called to testify. The thrust of their testimony was that, even if there had been a conspiracy to kill the visitor, Glover had withdrawn from it and was leaving when the visitor was shot.
Slick said his assessment was that these witnesses would not have helped.
But after hearing them, Superior Court James M. Sutton said he might have acquitted Glover himself--and not even let the case go to the jury for a decision--if he had known what they had had to say.
The state Court of Appeal agreed that Slick had acted incompetently--and ordered a new trial.
But prosecutors elected to dismiss charges against Glover last month.
THE GRAJEDA CASE
Senon Grajeda was another of Slick’s clients. Grajeda, a convicted armed robber and alleged member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, was accused of killing a young man in the Dana Strand housing project in Wilmington.
The only person who claimed to have seen the midnight killing was Eddie Moran, a convicted rapist and admitted drug dealer.
Moran did not come forward right away. But three weeks later, when arrested on PCP charges, Moran told police he had witnessed the murder. In exchange, he received a number of favors--some of which were undisclosed--and, after testifying, he got a sentence of probation in his PCP case.
As Grajeda’s court-appointed lawyer, Slick never told the jury that police found a possible murder weapon in the possession of Moran--not Grajeda. Nor did he tell jurors that Moran had a longstanding feud with Grajeda and thus, perhaps, a motive to frame him.
Grajeda is serving a term of 45 years to life.
His appellate lawyer, Gordon, said of Slick: “I think this is a case that was tried by the seat of someone’s pants” without much investigation or preparation.
Slick said he was prepared but declined to explain his strategy, saying he has an ethical obligation to keep secret his conversations with his client.
THE TUILAEPA CASE
Former Slick client and present Death Row inmate Paul Tuilaepa was convicted of being the gunman in a 1986 robbery and murder in a crowded bar.
Almost all of the eyewitnesses--and the police--agreed that there were two robbers, but that only one fired a gun.
With testimony from eight eyewitnesses, prosecutors alleged that Tuilaepa was the gunman and sought the death penalty. Slick did not contest the testimony.
He did not point out to jurors that three of the eyewitnesses had been unable to identify a police photo of Tuilaepa just after the shooting and that a fourth, according to a police report, had identified a photo of the other robber as the shooter.
Nor did he tell jurors that three other eyewitnesses, who did not testify, had identified the other robber as the man they had seen fleeing the bar carrying a gun.
Nor did he tell them about a statement the other robber made when he was arrested several months after the crime. According to a police account of the arrest, the other robber, David Laupua, “immediately and spontaneously stated: ‘I killed the guy. Let my friends go.’ ”
Slick said in an interview that he thought jurors would believe the prosecution’s eyewitnesses and feared that he would lose credibility if he sought to discredit their accounts.
He said he wanted to preserve jurors’ faith in him for the trial’s penalty phase, when he would argue that Tuilaepa’s life should be spared because the bar shooting was spontaneous rather than planned.
Slick said he made his decision not to challenge the prosecution’s eyewitness identifications of Tuilaepa as the shooter after seeing the witnesses testify at a preliminary hearing. “You kind of had to be there and see,” he said. “I have never seen a more dead bang, ‘This is the guy.’ ”
The prosecutor in the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, agreed. “Rarely have I had more of a gut level subjective feeling that these witnesses were identifying the actual shooter.”
Appellate lawyer Gillingham said, however, that a defense attorney could have argued that because of eyewitness inconsistencies there was at least some doubt that Tuilaepa was the shooter.
Slick said confidentiality requirements prevented him from explaining his strategy in detail to a reporter.
The court transcript appears to show an extraordinary example of Slick’s cooperation with the court system. The attorney not only allowed his client’s feet to be shackled throughout the jury trial, but he made no argument against it, even when the judge asked Tuilaepa to stand up--if he could--so that jurors could get a good look at him.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions say shackling a defendant makes him appear so dangerous to jurors, and is so prejudicial, that it must be done only as a last resort.
What was the reason for the shackling in this case? The transcript did not say.
In an interview, prosecutor Hodgman said he believes that Tuilaepa was chained because bailiffs feared that fellow gang members might try to free him.
Slick said he was convinced that the “very light . . . very long chain . . . had nothing to do with” the jury’s decision to convict.
Gillingham said of Slick: “You are talking about a major rollover artist.”
CRITICS AND DEFENDERS
Some other defense attorneys have also questioned Slick’s commitment, saying that, consciously or not, he sold out some of his clients in the interests of helping judges expedite cases.
Loren Mandel, who supervised the public defender’s office in Long Beach from 1983 to 1987, said judges liked Slick because he was always ready to go to trial, even when it seemed he had inadequate time to prepare. “Most attorneys would continue the case to prepare it,” Mandel said. “He would try the case . . . The courts loved it.”
Los Angeles lawyer John Morrissey, who waged an unsuccessful appeal on behalf of a former Slick client now on Death Row, said: “It would seem that his client was ‘the system,’ not the people he was actually assigned to represent.”
A substantial line of indigent Slick clients have asked judges to appoint someone else to represent them and had their requests turned down.
“I don’t trust him, period,” accused murderer Gary Metoyer said of Slick. “He’s shown no level of commitment . . . to me.”
But, in a retort similar to that made by several other judges in different cases, Superior Court Judge William H. Winston Jr. told Metoyer: “I can assure you that he’s one of the finest attorneys that we have here in the city of Long Beach. You’re very fortunate.”
The evidentiary portion of Metoyer’s trial lasted about an hour. Slick asked no questions of any of the six prosecution witnesses and called no witnesses for the defense. But he got what he and a lawyer for the co-defendant thought was a just result: Slick successfully argued that if Metoyer was guilty, he was guilty of second-degree murder, not first-degree murder as the prosecution alleged.
Some prosecutors and judges praise Slick’s honesty, temperament, intellect and his degree of care.
Several suggested that he is a gutsy minimalist who is unwilling to waste time presenting evidence he believes is extraneous just to avoid the potential embarrassment of being second-guessed by appeals court judges.
“It’s a shame that he’s being so hounded,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Phil Millet. “I can’t help but think one of the real reasons . . . is that by trying cases so quickly he’s not charging as much money as everybody’s used to making on these cases and they probably fear that he’s killing the golden goose.”
But some appellate attorneys who have seen Slick’s case files--and one investigator who worked with him--said Slick did little pretrial investigation.
Los Angeles private investigator Kristina Kleinbauer testified at a hearing on Slick’s competency that she handed Slick “what I thought was going to be my initial report” in a 1983 capital case.
Instead of asking her to develop additional information, she said, Slick went to trial the next day.
Later, a Long Beach judge ruled that Slick acted competently and denied a motion for a new trial.
Slick saved time in many cases by refraining from filing pretrial “discovery” motions. In discovery, judges order that criminal defendants be provided the evidence that the prosecution has collected.
Slick said he trusted prosecutors to voluntarily give him all the information. “I have been given better information by the prosecutor’s office in this building . . . than I ever would by some judge ordering any kind of a discovery order,” Slick testified in the Long Beach courthouse in 1988.
But by then, the state Supreme Court had declared that a prosecutor had improperly withheld evidence from Slick, bearing on the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness in a death penalty case.
Slick said in an interview that he still trusts this prosecutor, who is now a Long Beach judge. Slick said he also still trusts another prosecutor who failed to disclose information about informants who provided key prosecution evidence in two other murder cases.
“I’m not troubled by that,” Slick said. “I’m not going to sit here and judge him.”
Sentenced to Death
Long Beach defense lawyer Ron Slick represented more clients who were sentenced to die in the gas chamber than any lawyer in California. Here are the eight ex-Slick clients sent to Death Row.
Sam Marshall, age 45
Sentenced to death in 1988 for the April 13, 1986, strangulation murder of Sharon Rawls, identified by the district attorney’s office as a prostitute. Rawls was found tied and gagged in an abandoned building in Los Angeles.
Case Status: Marshall’s automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court has not yet been filed.
Andre Burton, age 28
Sentenced to death in 1985 for the Feb. 25, 1983, Long Beach shooting death of Gulshakar Khwaja, the mother of a man he robbed of $190 and shot in the eye. Burton was also found guilty of robbing two women at gunpoint earlier that day.
Case Status: The state Supreme Court upheld his death sentence in 1989, but the case remains on appeal.
Robert Lewis Jr., age 39
Sentenced to die in 1984 for the Oct. 27, 1983, robbery-murder of Milton Estell, who was found bound, gagged, stabbed and shot in the bedroom of his Long Beach home. Estell’s Cadillac was missing until Lewis was arrested driving it.
Case Status: The state Supreme Court upheld the conviction last year, but Lewis’ case remains on appeal.
Oscar Lee Morris, age 46
Sentenced to die in 1983 for the Sept. 3, 1978, murder of William Maxwell at a restroom in Long Beach. The state Supreme Court upheld the conviction but reversed the sentence in 1988 because there was not enough evidence to prove the robbery “special circumstance” that made the murder punishable by death.
Case Status: Morris was resentenced to life.
Charles Edward Moore Jr., 36
Sentenced to die in 1984 for the November, 1977, robbery-murders of Robert and Hettie Crumb, who managed a Long Beach apartment building where Moore once lived.
Case Status: The state Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence, but the case remains on appeal.
Paul Tuilaepa, age 26
Sentenced to die in 1987 for the Oct. 6, 1986, murder of Melvin Whiddon during the robbery of a Long Beach bar.
Case Status: Tuilaepa’s appeal to the state Supreme Court has not yet been heard.
Donrell Thomas, age 29
Sentenced to die in 1987 for the March 31, 1986, robbery-murder of Avery Lawson outside Lawson’s West 49th Street apartment in Long Beach.
Case Status: Thomas’ appeal to the state Supreme Court has not yet been heard.
Robert Paul Wilson, 40
Sentenced to die in 1988 for the Sept. 6, 1984, robbery-murder of Roy M. Swader, a Tucson tool vendor found shot to death in his van in the parking lot of a Long Beach park.
Case Status: Wilson’s appeal to the state Supreme Court has not yet been heard.