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Death penalty foe pleads guilty over filings

Times Staff Writer

A former death penalty investigator pleaded guilty Monday in Sacramento County Superior Court to perjury, forgery and falsifying documents on behalf of four death row inmates.

Under terms of a settlement deal, Kathleen Culhane pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery, one count of perjury and one count of filing false documents, said Culhane’s defense attorney, Stuart Hanlon.

Culhane, 40, faces five years in prison when she is sentenced in mid-August, said David Kravets, a spokesman for California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

In a statement, Brown said Culhane “crossed the line from vigorous defense to unethical and illegal conduct.”

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In a telephone interview, Hanlon said, “This was a very difficult case to plead. It involved emotional and moral issues that made it hard for both sides to make reasonable judgments about what she did.

“The state attorney general is very upset about her actions, saying these are very serious crimes and deserve prison time,” Hanlon said. “But my client did what she did because of her lifelong anti-death-penalty beliefs. She felt she did what was necessary to stop the inhumane and immoral death penalty.

“Some people in the legal community say she’s crazy or has a death wish,” he said. “She’s a totally sane and wonderful person. She just took her beliefs seriously and put them into action.”

But Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said: “You don’t just cheat when you don’t like the rules. Saying your cause is higher than the law is a dangerous concept.”

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Declarations that were submitted by Culhane to the courts and to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the clemency bid of death row inmate Michael Morales triggered a one-year investigation that culminated in a 45-count, 17-page complaint filed against her by state prosecutors.

Had she been convicted on all counts, Culhane could have been sentenced to 18 years and eight months in prison, officials said.

Morales, 47, of Stockton, was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of Terri Winchell, a 17-year-old Lodi high school student.

He was sentenced to death in 1983. His execution has been on hold pending a legal challenge to California’s lethal injection protocol.

In all, Culhane, a law school graduate, allegedly filed questionable declarations on behalf of 11 jurors, two witnesses, two court interpreters and one police officer while working as an investigator for the state-funded Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco and in private practice between November 2002 and February 2006, according to the complaint.

As an investigator, Culhane’s job was to find and interview witnesses and jurors who participated in death penalty cases and obtain signed declarations that were favorable to the inmates’ defense and pleas for clemency, Kravets said.

Culhane’s declarations were delivered to the attorneys who were representing death row inmates, who then filed them as evidence with the courts and the governor.

The Habeas Corpus Resource Center cooperated with the state’s investigation, Kravets said.

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State prosecutors believe that Culhane illegally intervened on behalf of death row inmates Morales; Vicente Figueroa Benavides, convicted by a Kern County jury of the 1991 murder, rape and sodomy of a 21-month-old; Christian Monterroso, convicted by an Orange County jury of the 1991 murders of Tarsem Singh and Ashokkumar Patel; and Jose Guerra, convicted by a Los Angeles County jury of the 1990 rape and murder of Kathleen Powell.

The case against Culhane began when San Joaquin County prosecutors, in arguments submitted to Schwarzenegger, named her as the Morales investigator who had supposedly discovered that five jurors in Ventura County -- where the case was tried because of a venue change -- had had a change of heart.

The five jurors in question later told prosecutors under oath that they had never been contacted by anyone from the Morales team, and had no idea who Culhane was.

Culhane also said in her own sworn declarations that she had met several times with a key witness in the case, Patricia Felix, in January 2006 at her home in Stockton.

Felix had not lived at the address Culhane cited since July 2005.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com


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