By Mary Shelton
Jury selection began on Nov. 7 in the capital murder trial of a man charged with killing a Riverside Police Department detective, after the presiding judge ruled against holding a separate proceeding beforehand to determine whether or not Steve Woodruff is mentally retarded.
Judge Christian F. Thierbach denied a motion filed by defense attorney Mark Blankenship which would have delayed the trial, and announced that jury selection would begin that morning as scheduled.
And so, Woodruff becomes only the second defendant facing capital murder charges in California who could be found mentally retarded, since the United States Supreme Court released the Atkins decision that states that it is unconstitutional to execute a person who is mentally retarded.
Blankenship objected to Thierbachs ruling, saying the issue of mental retardation had been raised in previous hearings, and should be settled in a separate jury trial before any criminal proceedings begin.
He added that he did not want a death penalty-qualified jury to hear and decide a case which might turn out not to be a capital murder case at all if it is determined that Woodruff is mentally retarded.
I think it would be highly prejudicial to death-qualify jurors and let them think theyre perhaps pursuing a death penalty case when at one point it would be determined that his mental state is such that he fell within the parameters of Atkins vs. Virginia, Blankenhip said at a hearing last July and reiterated in his motion.
Thierbach decided that the process would involve a three-phase trial, which would begin with the jury deciding whether or not Woodruff was guilty of either first-degree murder or a lesser-included offense. If the jury convicted him of first-degree murder with at least one special circumstance, mentally retarded, the same jury would receive evidence and testimony from both sides and then decide the mental retardation issue. If the jury decided he was mentally retarded, then he could be sentenced to life in prison without parole. If a jury determined he was not mentally retarded, then the trial would proceed to the penalty phase where the jury would sentenced him either to death or to life imprisonment without parole.
Obviously we are breaking new ground here," Thierbach said when giving his decision, "Somewhere down the line I might be proven wrong."
Since the United States Supreme Court released a recent court decision that it was unconstitutional to execute a person who was mentally retarded, states like California have been left to determine how their criminal court systems will apply to his decision, with few set guidelines to follow, Thierbach said.
Blankenship had submitted a motion where he wrote in support of conducting an evidentiary hearing in front of a jury to determine if Woodruff was mentally retarded, would be efficient and consistent with constitutional standards of due process, fairness and reasonableness. However, to do so without a jury present, would violate Woodruffs 6th and 14th amendment rights, he wrote.
He argued that the issue should be settled before the criminal trial, not after.
The prospect of him being mentally retarded has been raised, Blankenship said. According to the defenses psychological expert, Dr. Curtis Booraem, Woodruff took the Whechsler test last April and registered a total I.Q. score of 66, which qualifies him as being mildly retarded. The standard set in the Atkins decision was 70.
Prosecutor Michael Soccio's expert, Dr. Craig Rath, states in his report that he had readministered the Whechsler and this time Woodruff scored 78, an increase which Rath wrote was attributed to Woodruffs desire to improve his showing on that test, so he would not be seen as mentally retarded.
Because it is not uncommon for peoples scores to increase by at least 10 points when they retake the Whechsler test, most jurisdictions do not allow for a second set of scores to be admissible in court unless the second test is administered at least 12 months after the first one.
After hearing Blankenships argument, Thierbach said his plan to have the jury decide on the mental retardation issue after the guilt phase of the trial was the fairest and most equitable, and added that he would welcome any guidance from a higher court.
That is why we have higher courts, he said.
Jury selection began, as 320 jurors were brought to court to be time qualified and the majority of prospective jurors were then sent to the jury room to fill out lengthy questionnaires which asked them their positions on issues including capital punishment.
First, however, they listened to Thierbach invoke the name of several of the states most notorious convicted killers as he explained the history of the death penalty in California to them.
He said that the abolition of the death penalty in the early 1970s led to inmates on death row having their sentences commuted to life in prison with parole, thus providing the possibility that they could be released onto the streets.
It is because of that, that men like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan keep coming up for parole review, Thierbach said.
The dearth of African Americans in the jury pool caught the attention of Blankenship early in the process.
Out of the 320 jurors, only 15 were African American and they constituted less than 5 percent of the jury pool. And when the surviving jurors left to fill out questionnaires, the number of African Americans dropped further.
When Blankenship raised this issue with Thierbach, the judge disagreed, insisting the number of Black jurors was higher than what the defense claimed.
It appears that roughly 15 percent, somewhere between 15 and 18 percent of the people who filled out questionnaires are African American, Thierbach said, based on his head count.
Which given that 159 prospective jurors filled out questionnaires meant that 23-28 of them should have been African American, a number higher than that found in the entire jury pool.
A large proportion of jurors excluded for extreme personal and financial hardships either lived or worked in cities in south-west Riverside County, where few African Americans reside, including Temecula and Hemet. One of the jurors excused was the wife of a Riverside Police Department homicide detective.
Woodruff is facing capital murder charges stemming from a January 13, 2001 incident when he allegedly shot and killed detective Doug Jacobs while Jacobs and officer Ben Baker were handcuffing Woodruffs mother, Parthenia Carr and his younger brother, Claude Carr after responding to a loud music call at their residence.
The 153 jurors left return to court for final jury selection on Nov. 19. The evidence portion of the trial is scheduled to begin on Dec. 4.
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