Eleven years after an Orange County jury convicted Randy Kraft of murdering 16 people, the California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld his death sentence in what officials described as an important advance in the effort to execute the notorious serial killer.
The justices unanimously rejected Kraft’s claims that he received an unfair trial, saying he should die for the decadelong murder spree. The “Scorecard Killer” strangled his victims after drugging and sexually assaulting them, spawning Orange County’s longest and costliest murder case.
Prosecutors said they were encouraged by the court’s unanimous, strongly worded decision, which they believe will expedite any further appeals from Kraft’s defense team. But they acknowledged that Kraft’s execution is still years away and more appeals at the federal level should be expected.
“Our hope is that it will help speed it along through the system, and allow Mr. Kraft to get his just punishment,” said Bryan Brown, a senior assistant district attorney.
For families of Kraft’s victims, the long-awaited court decision was a triumph--but one many are taking with a grain of salt.
“We haven’t had any closure,” said Lois Hall, whose 22-year-old son was killed by Kraft in 1976. “It’s just still hanging there with us and all the other people he’s hurt. He shouldn’t be allowed to do that.”
Hall also expressed outrage at the long-running case’s record cost to taxpayers. The county has spent well over $11 million on the case so far--including $1 million on the latest round of appeals.
“That’s outrageous,” Hall said. “We’ve got better uses for our taxpayer dollars.”
Prosecutors suspect Kraft killed as many as 45 young men in Southern California, Oregon and Michigan. A soft-spoken former computer programmer, he targeted hitchhikers 18 to 25 years old.
Many were sexually tortured before being strangled to death with their own belts. One victim’s eyes had been burned with a cigarette lighter. Another man’s head was found in the waters off the Long Beach Marina.
Kraft’s murder spree ended in 1983 when police pulled his car over in Mission Viejo and found a dead Marine in the passenger seat. In the car, police also found pictures of several other victims, and a so-called death list filled with the victims’ addresses and other incriminating items.
After the 13-month trial, jurors deliberated two days before sentencing Kraft to death. The trial court judge upheld the penalty, saying the killings and mutilations were beyond comprehension.
“I can’t imagine doing these things in scientific experiments on a dead person, much less [to] someone alive,” said Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin at the time.
Before sentencing, Kraft maintained his innocence. “I have not murdered anyone, and I believe a reasonable review of the record will show that,” he told the judge.
In his appeal, Kraft argues that his original trial was riddled with more than 20 legal errors. His most serious charge claims the judge erred in allowing prosecutors to use as evidence the “death list.”
His attorneys allege that the list--a sheet of paper bearing 61 cryptic entries that prosecutors called a scorecard of victims--improperly prejudiced the jury.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the list was relevant.
In a 107-page opinion written by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, the high court also said Kraft was not entitled to a separate trial for each of his victims. Justices also determined that the drunken-driving arrest that led to the murder charges was handled properly.
Kraft, now 55, has lived on San Quentin’s death row for 11 years. And defense attorney Richard Power said his client isn’t going to the death chamber any time soon.
He plans to petition the federal courts, where the case could prove time consuming because of its complexity and number of victims.
“A case of this size will probably sit in federal courts for years,” he said.
Times staff writer Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.