The lawyer for a death row inmate failed to demonstrate that systematic delays in the resolution of capital cases result in an arbitrary process that violates the Eighth Amendment, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The court, which has rejected such arguments in the past, asked the parties for supplemental briefing on the issue after a federal district judge ruled last year that such delays rendered the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.
But while Ropati Seumanu is free to make a more individually focused argument in a habeas corpus petition, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote, he is not entitled to have his sentence overturned merely because more than 14 years have elapsed since he was sentenced to die for a murder in his hometown of Heyward.
“Our conclusion would be different were the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to ask all capital inmates who have exhausted their appeals to draw straws or roll dice to determine who would be the 1st in line for execution,” the jurist said. “But the record in this case does not demonstrate such arbitrariness,” she continued.
“Unquestionably, some delay occurs while this court locates and appoints qualified appellate counsel, permits those appointed attorneys to prepare detailed briefs, allows the Attorney General to respond, and then carefully evaluates the arguments.”
Those delays safeguard the defendants’ rights, rather than violate them, she said.
Seumanu was 22 when he, his brother and 2 teenagers stole a car one night in May 1996 and confronted Nolan Pamintuan, 25, who had just returned from a pre-wedding dinner with his fiancee, according to testimony.
The robbers took an inscribed Movado watch his fiancee had given him as a wedding gift and $300 that they forced him to withdraw from a bank ATM. After expressing irritation at the fact he had no more money to give them and had reached the ATM’s withdrawal limit, Seumanu killed him with a shotgun blast to the chest, according to the testimony.
His brother, Tautai Seumanu, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 28 years to life in prison, and the two teenagers were given shorter sentences for manslaughter, kidnapping and robbery.
Ropati Seumanu, who served as a deacon in the First Samoan Gospel Church, where his father was pastor, was also described by a witness as the founder of a gang called Sons of Samoa, affiliated with the Crips. Witnesses said he committed numerous assaults in the years before the murder.
In addition to rejecting Seumanu’s Eighth Amendment claim, the justices concluded that he was not entitled to a reversal based on prosecutorial misconduct.
Werdegar was critical of Deputy District Attorney Angela Backers for, among other things, telling the jury that Seumanu’s lawyers were putting on a “sham” defense and didn’t believe their client’s alibi, for asking jurors to view the case through the eyes of the victim, who begged for his life before being shot, and for telling the jury – after the defense lawyers introduced themselves and their client – that the deceased was her “client.”
But none of those remarks affected the verdict, Werdegar said, because the evidence of guilt was strong and the jury was properly instructed not to be swayed by prejudice or sympathy and that the remarks of counsel were not evidence.
The case is People vs. Seumanu, 15 S.O.S. 4375.
Source: Metropolitan News Company, August 26, 2015
The Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII) to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights (ratified December 15, 1791) prohibiting the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments, including torture.