Death-penalty trials make a comeback in O.C.

04 Feb
orange county bail bonds

Jason Balcom

“You are a cancer on society,” Superior Court Judge William Froeberg said in November 2011 as he handed down the death penalty to a killer who gunned down a Tustin home improvement store manager.

That was the last time that an Orange County judge was tasked with the ultimate sentencing decision: the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

No death sentences were issued in 2012, making it the first year since 2007 when no one was sent to death row from Orange County.

It is one of the longest spells without a death sentence here since the death penalty was re-established in California in 1978.

That’s about to change.

Prosecuting and defense attorneys on Monday will deliver opening statements in the death-penalty re-trial of convicted rapist Jason Michael Balcom.

It will be the first of what could be a record 10 death-penalty trials in Orange County in 2013.

“We had several death-penalty cases ready for trial last year,” said Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, the head of the prosecution’s homicide team. “But the defense in several cases found ways to stretch things out and get continuances to see what happened with Proposition 34.”

In November, California voters affirmed the death penalty by rejecting Prop. 34 by a large margin. Opponents of the death penalty placed the measure on the ballot, saying that the death penalty is too expensive to maintain.

Had voters approved the measure, the maximum allowable sentence would have been life in prison without the possibility of parole, eliminating the need for a death-penalty trial. The measure also would have required that the death sentences conferred on 61 Orange County killers on death row would have reverted to life without parole.

“Absolutely, a number of trials got pushed back last year to see if Proposition 34 passed,” agreed Denise Gragg, director of the alternate defender’s office, “Why spend the money for a death-penalty trial if a death sentence would no longer be an option?”

But now – with the death penalty sustained by voters – Orange County judges are juggling their trial calendars to make sure they have time allotted for potential penalty-phase evidence, and court authorities are pondering how many jurors should be summoned to serve on death-penalty cases.

Death-penalty trials often require more jurors than other murder trials. That’s because the potential jury pool is first screened to make sure would-be jurors can serve on a longer trial without it being a hardship, and then to eliminate candidates who have too strident a view for or against the ultimate punishment.

For example, Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno brought in 240 would-be jurors to his 11th-floor courtroom earlier this month for consideration in the penalty-phase retrial of Balcom, the convicted rapist charged with murdering a Costa Mesa housewife. Through a lengthy process, those 240 candidates have been winnowed down to a panel of 12 plus a few alternates.

And three floors down, Superior Court Judge Richard Toohey last week brought in nearly 250 potential jurors to his courtroom to fill out questionnaires for consideration in the death-penalty trial of Waymon Livingston, who is charged with murder during a sexual assault and a series of rapes. Opening statements in his case could come as early as Thursday.

By comparison, a non-death penalty jury trial usually requires about 80 prospects.

Death sentences statewide also have been down for the past two years in the run-up to the Prop. 34 ballot decision, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Judges sent 29 killers to death row in 2009 and 2010, but just 10 in 2011 and 12 last year, according to the CDCR website.

The spate of death-penalty trials in Orange County this year starts with People v. Balcom.

He was convicted last year of the special-circumstances murder of Costa Mesa housewife Malinda Gibbons in 1988.

Gibbons was 22 and pregnant when she and her husband, Kent, moved to Costa Mesa from a small town in Utah after he took a job here as an engineer. Three days after they moved in, Kent Gibbons returned home from work and found the semi-nude body of his wife in their bedroom. She had been bound with his belt and neckties, gagged and stabbed once in the chest. The intruder also robbed her of her wedding ring, watch, purse and a calculator.

Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy asked for the death penalty for Balcom, arguing the cruel nature of the slaying, Balcom’s violent criminal history and the impact the slaying had on Gibbons’ family warranted the maximum penalty. Deputy Public Defender Dolores Yost asked for a life-without-parole sentence, saying that Balcom was the product of an unstable upbringing by his mother, a mentally ill, self-absorbed, needy and manipulative woman who later committed suicide.

The Orange County jury in the first penalty phase in 2012 hung at 10-2 in favor of a death sentence, prompting a mistrial and setting the stage for the first death-penalty trial of 2013.

People v. Balcom represents the type of case, Wagner said, that demands a death-penalty prosecution.

“That was the decision of the voters in Proposition 34,” he said. “They wanted us to continue to seek the death penalty where appropriate.

“Even if it’s 20 years … before we start to carry out death penalties in California again, we should continue to look evil in the face and denounce it as loud as we possibly can,” Wagner said.

He said he is aware that no one has been executed in California since January 2006, and that there is a moratorium on executions while a Marin County judge considers whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual. He also acknowledged that only 13 killers have been put to death in California, including two from Orange County, since the death penalty was re-established in 1978.

But he insists that there should be a death penalty for those killers who demonstrate “maximum depravity and ultimate wickedness” with their crimes.

After Balcom, the other nine defendants who could face a death-penalty trial in 2013 are:

•Waymon Livingston: Charged with of strangling and raping a Sacramento woman in an Anaheim motel room in September 2007, four rapes and one assault between 2005 and 2007 after he was linked to the crimes through DNA. He is also scheduled to tried later on a separate murder charge involving a woman in a Costa Mesa motel in 2007..

•Iftekhar Murtaza: Charged with abducting and murdering his ex-girlfriend’s father, Jayprakash Dhanak, and her sister, Karishma Dhanak, in 2007 before setting their bodies on fire. Scheduled trial date: March 18.

•Daniel Patrick Wozniak: Charged with murdering a friend, Army veteran Samuel Herr, in 2010 after luring him to a community theater during a bizarre robbery attempt, and killing Herr’s friend Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, in an even more bizarre shooting designed to confuse Costa Mesa police in Herr’s case. Pre-trial hearing Feb. 15 with trial date expected later in the year.

•Scott Evans DeKraai: Charged with multiple murders in the shooting deaths of eight people, including his ex-wife, at a Seal Beach beauty salon on Oct. 12, 2011. He was indicted on eight counts of special-circumstances murder in January 2012. Trial date: March 25, but likely to be rescheduled for later in the year.

•Richard Raymond Ramirez: He is not the “night stalker,” but he has spent most of the past 30 years on death row after he was convicted of raping and murdering a woman in an alley behind a Garden Grove bar in 1983. But that death sentence was reversed on appeal. Prosecutors will seek a second death penalty beginning March 22.

•Itzcoatl Ocampo: The ex-Marine is charged with the serial murders of a mother and son in Yorba Linda and the unprovoked stabbing deaths of four homeless men in north Orange County in 2011 and 2012. Scheduled trial date: May 20.

•Anthony Wade: Charged with raping and torturing an Anaheim widow before stabbing her with a kitchen knife in 2010, and then stealing her car and trying to use one of her credit cards at a grocery store. Tentative trial date: Aug. 5.

•Hilbert Piniel Thomas: Charged in connection with the robbery-shooting deaths of a Stanton mobile-home salesman, Matthew Francis Scott, and his secretary, Elizabeth Ann Palmer, who were both shot in the back of the head. Scheduled trial date: Sept. 27.

•Pasqual Loera: Charged with murdering a Westminster couple after posing as a buyer for their Infiniti in 2010. Authorities said he stole the sedan, drove to Nevada, accidentally shot himself in the foot and drove into a ditch. Scheduled pre-trial hearing: Feb. 1, trial expected later in the year.



If you are charged with a crime, contact an experienced Orange County Bail Bondsman to assist you in any bail situation.



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