A federal appeals court in San Francisco reversed the death sentence of a Garden Grove man Friday, saying his lawyer had failed to discover his client's severe mental problems, which might have affected the jury's verdict for execution.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3 to 0 that Fred B. Douglas, who killed two teenage girls from Anaheim, is entitled to a new penalty phase hearing or to a reduction of sentence to life in prison.
The court, however, upheld an Orange County jury's verdict that Douglas had murdered Beth Jones, 19, and Peggy Krueger, 16, in 1982 after luring them to a remote area of Anza Borrego State Park by promising each $500 for posing for nude photos.
The key testimony against Douglas in his 1984 trial came from his accomplice, Richard Hernandez, who received immunity for helping the prosecution.
Hernandez testified that he and Douglas had given the teenagers beer and marijuana and told them to strip and pose on a blanket. He said Douglas bound them with a cord and forced them at gunpoint to have sex with one another and each of the two men. Then Douglas slashed Krueger on the neck with a razor blade and strangled Jones. The bodies were found months later.
At Douglas' trial, a woman testified that he had asked her to help him kill young women in the desert while he made sex films that included bondage and sadism. He said the bodies would be buried, Kathy Phillips testified, and the movies could be sold for large profit "to people in Las Vegas." Phillips said she had refused, but hadn't told police because she had a drug problem.
Douglas, 74, is one of the oldest people on death row at San Quentin. At his sentencing, Orange County Judge Richard E. Owen called him a "sadistic, unbelievably cruel and senseless killer" who murdered two young women to "gratify some weird sexual fantasy."
The California Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction and death sentence in 1990. Ten years later, after various delays, U.S. District Ronald S.W. Lew in Los Angeles denied Douglas' claims that his constitutional rights had been violated.
But the 9th Circuit ruled that the failure of Douglas' trial lawyer to investigate Douglas' social history and mental history adequately had hurt his case at the penalty phase.
Douglas' federal appellate attorneys, Mark Overland and Mark Borenstein, discovered that, as a youth, he had been beaten and locked in a closet by his adoptive parents, and that, after he ran away from home, he had been gang-raped in a Florida prison.
They also learned that Douglas later had enlisted in the Marines and compiled an admirable record, including saving two sailors from drowning. None of this evidence was introduced at trial, where his lawyer presented less than an hour of penalty-phase testimony, Overland said.
In Friday's ruling, 9th Circuit Judge Michael D. Hawkins said trial lawyer George Peters had failed to find records from an earlier case against Douglas, including a doctor's diagnosis that he was suffering "from serious and outstanding mental illness and possible organic impairment."
The doctor said his tests indicated neurological problems, "which may have interacted with brain damage later in life stemming from Douglas' chronic alcoholism, constant exposure to toxic solvents in connection with his furniture refinishing business and a serious head injury" suffered in a 1967 car accident.
"The available mitigating evidence that could have been introduced in Douglas' trial was precisely the type of evidence that we have found critical for a jury to consider when deciding whether to impose a death sentence," Hawkins said in ruling that the attorney provided constitutionally inadequate representation. Judges Mary M. Schroeder and William A. Fletcher joined in the opinion.
"The gruesome nature of the killing did not necessarily mean the death penalty was unavoidable," Hawkins wrote. But "the jury's failure to consider ... compelling evidence" about Douglas' history and mental problems "undermines our confidence in the outcome of Douglas' penalty phase hearing," Hawkins added.