Teen’s Murder Convictions Overturned
A Sun Valley teenager’s convictions and death sentence for the killings of his father, stepfather and stepsister were overturned Wednesday by a federal appeals court, which said the youth’s lawyer failed to inform a psychiatrist about his mental illness and abusive childhood.
If the psychiatrist had been given the readily available information about Robert M. Bloom Jr., including a recent diagnosis that he belonged in a mental hospital, “there is a reasonable probability that the verdicts would have been different,” the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 3-0 ruling.
The ruling entitles Bloom to a new trial.
Bloom, now 34, was 18 when he shot his father, Robert Bloom Sr., outside their home in Sun Valley, then shot his stepmother, Josephine Lou Bloom, and shot and stabbed his 8-year-old stepsister, Sandra Hughes, inside the home in April 1982, the court said.
He denied killing his stepmother and said he saw his father shoot her, then killed him in anger and remembered nothing about the death of his stepsister.
A psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur Kling, testified that Bloom had a mental disorder, but the prosecutor undermined his testimony with an earlier report in which Kling concluded that Bloom had known what he was doing, the court said.
After his convictions, Bloom fired his lawyer, represented himself at the penalty phase and asked the jury for death, saying he deserved to die but would “laugh all day long” if sentenced to life.
In upholding his death sentence in 1989, the state Supreme Court ruled for the first time that a defendant can act as his own lawyer and seek a death sentence without destroying the reliability of the verdict.
Wednesday’s ruling found that Bloom was represented incompetently by his trial lawyer, Sherwin Edelberg.
The court said Edelberg had little contact with Kling, his sole expert witness. The lawyer waited months before hiring Kling and never spoke to him. Edelberg sent him only a list of questions drafted by a law student and a few documents, including essays by Bloom and a statement from his natural mother, the court said.
With little preparation, Kling interviewed Bloom and then wrote his first report, which proved “devastating” to the defense, the court said.
Information uncovered later, which was available to Edelberg, included Bloom’s history of abuse by his parents since early childhood, the court said: His mother had held a gun to his head for 45 minutes, and his father regularly beat him with his fists and other objects, pushed his head to the floor and screamed obscenities at him. His mother also took a drug during pregnancy that can cause fetal damage, and he took medication at age 11 that can cause psychiatric problems.
After a robbery arrest five months before the killings, a court-appointed psychiatrist said Bloom was a potential danger to himself and others and should be committed to a mental hospital, the court said. While in jail before the murder trial, Bloom tried to kill himself, and a jail psychologist said he was suffering hallucinations.
Kling, in a post-trial declaration, said additional information would have drastically changed his assessment. 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 overruled U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts of Los Angeles, who had concluded that the information would not have affected the 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 the prosecutor had offered a life sentence without parole before trial.
Edelberg said Wednesday 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.”