November 20, 2012

Double murderer gets death in crude parody of justice


That was the reaction of a double murderer to today's jury verdict sentencing him to death. Representing himself at trial, Nathaniel Burris had told jurors in Martinez, California to flip a coin, as he couldn't care less whether he received the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole.

"Send me on my way," he told the jury through a severe speech impediment. "I'm happy, I'm smiling and laughing. I have no remorse."*

According to blow-by-blow news accounts by local news reporter Malaika Fraley of the Contra Costa Times, Burris giggled and cursed his way through the entire trial. He repeatedly said he was justified in killing his estranged girlfriend and her male friend, whom he suspected of trysting with her, and testified he would "do it again." After the verdict was read, he cursed and gloated at his male victim's relatives, yelling: "I blew your brother's brains out, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Even more bizarre, after calling himself as the sole defense witness at the penalty phase of the trial, Burris made a surprise admission: He had committed three unsolved armed robberies of San Francisco pharmacies in the 1990s.

When the prosecutor tried to pin him down about these holdups, cross-examining him as to what kind of gun he had used, Burris grinned and refused to answer: "At this time, I'm not going to answer your questions. Motion denied."

A juror who talked to the news reporter after the verdict said jurors were appalled by Burris's courtroom antics, and had a tough time understanding his right to present no defense. They deliberated for a little over a day before leveling the ultimate penalty, in part out of fear that Burris would kill other prisoners -- as he had testified he would -- if given a life sentence and housed with other men.

Mental health overlooked? 

Searching through news archives on the high-profile case (Burris was dubbed "the toll plaza killer" because the killings happened at the entrance to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge), I could find no reporting on whether Burris was ever evaluated to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. If he was evaluated, and the results not publicized, he must have been found competent.

That seems odd, given his bizarre behavior throughout the trial. In the 2008 case of Indiana v. Edwards, the U.S. Supreme Court set the competency bar higher for defendants who elect to act as their own attorneys at trial, ruling that there is no Constitutional right to self representation. Earlier this year, California's high court took that line of reasoning even further, ruling that a judge may bar a defendant from representing himself even if he has been found competent to stand trial.
But the Burris case was a throwback to the pre-Edwards days in which the Long Island railroad killer, Colin Ferguson, was able to railroad himself straight to prison. The spectacle was like handing the prosecutor a shotgun loaded with buckshot and seeing if he could hit the defendant at a range of five feet.

Not difficult. Not pretty. And certainly not dignified for the legal system.

Not a one-time case

This isn't the first time in recent memory that Contra Costa County (northeast of San Francisco) has hosted such a farcical spectacle. Three years ago, a man named Edward Wycoff was allowed to represent himself in the ambush killings of his sister and brother-in-law. Like Burris, he was unrepentant. He testified at trial that he should win an award for ridding the world of two evil people who were "too easy" on their children and had not invited him over for Christmas.

I’m sure you can guess the outcome.

The jury deliberated only 45 minutes before sentencing Wycoff to die. And that was even after the son of the dead couple -- who had opposed the death penalty -- testified that Wycoff was too emotionally impaired to get the ultimate penalty.

In Burris's case, the prosecutor insisted that the defendant's bizarre conduct was irrelevant.

Snapshot of Burris with murder victim Deborah Ross
"Don't misunderstand what we've seen here for some mental disorder or defect," said Chief Assistant District Attorney Harold Jewett. "He's just a psychopathic killer."

But we have only his word on this, because there is no publicly available information on whether Burris's psychological functioning was ever fully explored. In a typical capital case, psychiatric problems, brain damage, childhood trauma, and a host of similar factors are explored as potentially mitigating circumstances that may be presented at the penalty phase of the trial.

For a psychopathic killer, Burris seemed to have an awfully strong death wish. The case reminded me a bit of the landmark case of Richard Moran, who strode into the Red Pearl Saloon in Carson City, Nevada back in 1984 and shot the bartender and a customer dead before looting the cash register. Facing the death penalty, Moran waived his right to counsel, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to death.

Here, the charade took a little longer to play out, but the outcome was just as foregone. 

Burris spent quite a bit of time scoffing at the prospect of the death penalty, saying that California's capital sentencing scheme is so dysfunctional that his execution will be held up by appeals for the next 30 to 40 years, while he lives out his life comfortably on Death Row. I have to agree with him there. Especially given his questionable competence, which will be ripe grounds for appeal, I predict that the death penalty will be abolished in California before Burris gets the needle. Public support for capital punishment has never been lower in California. The internationally watched Proposition 34, which would have eliminated executions in the state, was narrowly defeated (53 to 47 percent) even as Burris stood trial, and the issue is unlikely to go away.

In the meantime, Burris sees no problem at all.

"I'm walking the plank. It's my plank to walk. I don't want anyone pushing me, guiding me or holding my hand," he told the jury charged with deciding his fate. “My life has been really interesting. I love it, and I'm actually interested in what's going to happen down the road."

"I’m as cool as a cucumber." 
* * * * *

*All direct quotes in this post were gleaned from the detailed news accounts by Malaika Fraley of the Contra Costa Times. Thank you for the reporting, Ms. Fraley.

Related blog posts:
My page of competency case resources is HERE.