Conviction of Killer of 3 Overturned
A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a teenage killer who once told a jury he would “laugh all day long” if he escaped the death penalty for the 1982 murders of three members of his family in Sun Valley.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, in a 3-0 ruling, found that Richard M. Bloom Jr.'s lawyer made a key error in the defense of his client when he failed to inform a psychiatrist about Bloom’s readily available history of child abuse and mental illness.
The justices concluded that if the information, which included a then-recent diagnosis that Bloom belonged in a mental hospital, had come to light at the trial, “there is a reasonable probability that the verdicts would have been different.”
Bloom, 34, is now entitled to a new trial.
He was 18 when he was charged with fatally shooting his stepmother and father and shooting and stabbing his 8-year-old stepsister to death. After his conviction in Los Angeles Superior Court, Bloom fired his court-appointed lawyer and chose to represent himself in the penalty phase of his trial, where he asked the jury to sentence him to death.
“This is a case where justice cries out for the death penalty,” Bloom himself argued. “A life sentence is no deterrent. . . . If you give life, I’ll laugh all day long . . . [and] I’ll kill again in prison.”
The jury did sentence Bloom to death in 1984.
His case set a precedent in 1989 when the state Supreme Court issued a 5-2 decision upholding the sentence, ruling that a mentally competent defendant retains a well-established right to defend himself, even when the defendant deliberately courts a death sentence.
The defendant who does so cannot change course on appeal and seek to overturn the verdict on the grounds of an inadequate defense, the justices said, rejecting an appeal by Bloom’s new lawyer that allowing the death sentence to stand amounted to “state-aided suicide.”
At issue in Wednesday’s federal court ruling was the trial performance of Bloom’s original attorney, Sherwin Edelberg of Encino.
The judges found that Edelberg had not properly prepared a psychiatrist who was the defense attorney’s sole expert witness.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur Kling, testified that Bloom had a mental disorder. But during cross-examination the prosecutor significantly discredited Kling when he produced an earlier report in which Kling stated that Bloom knew what he was doing.
According to the appeals court, Kling was ill-prepared to take the stand. The judges found that Edelberg hired Kling late in the case, never spoke to him and failed to provide him with important materials, including essays by Bloom and a statement from his natural mother.
Lacking this information, Kling interviewed Bloom and drafted his first report, which the judges said proved devastating to the defense.
After Bloom’s conviction, a history of abuse came to light, including beatings and verbal assaults at the hands of his father, and an incident in which his mother held a gun to his head for 45 minutes.
It was also disclosed that Bloom’s mother took a drug during pregnancy that can cause fetal damage, and that when he was 11, Bloom took medication that can cause psychiatric problems.
After the trial, Kling said that this information, coupled with an earlier psychiatric assessment that said Bloom was a danger to himself and others, would have drastically changed his own assessment, had Bloom’s lawyer told him.
A court-appointed doctor, who had previously found Bloom mentally competent, said after learning of his history that he suffers from “serious mental disorders and brain damage.”
The appeals court verdict Wednesday overruled U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts of Los Angeles, who had concluded that the information would not have affected the original murder verdict.
Edelberg’s delay in obtaining a psychiatric expert and failure to prepare him adequately for trial produced testimony that “gave the prosecution the ammunition it needed to secure guilty verdicts of first-degree murder,” said the opinion by Judge David Thompson.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Robert Schneider said he expects the state to appeal. He said experts testifying before Letts concluded that Kling had more information than a psychiatrist usually gets and that the additional information would have made no difference.
“A lot of the [new] stuff is just fabrication, probably,” Schneider said.
But Dennis Riordan, Bloom’s appellate lawyer, said: “Had he been competently represented, there never would have been a judgment of death.” He said that before the trial, the prosecutor had offered Bloom a sentence of life without parole if he pleaded guilty.
Edelberg, handling his first death penalty case, “didn’t spend any time with the client, didn’t research the case, didn’t learn the law of psychiatric defenses and didn’t work with any experts,” Riordan said.
Edelberg said Wednesday that he thought he had provided Kling with all the available psychiatric information. But he called Riordan a “brilliant lawyer” and said, “I’m glad he found something I did wrong.”
Associated Press contributed to this story.