A federal appellate court on Thursday ordered the release or retrial of a man doing life in prison without parole for the notorious murder of a beloved Sacramento minister and gay rights activist.
An 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split 6-5 in deciding that Tio Dinero Sessoms was unlawfully denied an attorney while being questioned by Sacramento police detectives.
The ruling wipes out earlier decisions by a split three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, a federal trial judge in Sacramento, a three-justice panel of the state's 3rd District Court of Appeal and a Sacramento Superior Court judge.
Sessoms, 32, who was found guilty by a jury of murder, burglary and robbery, has been in prison more than 10 years. He is housed at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
Thursday's six-judge majority reversed U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez's refusal to set aside Sessoms' conviction and ordered the judge to grant the habeas petition "with directions that the state retry Sessoms within a reasonable period, or release him."
The majority found Sessoms asked for a lawyer the only such finding in the litigation's lengthy history, except for 9th Circuit Judge Betty B. Fletcher's dissent in the three-judge panel's opinion last year. After its opinion adverse to Sessoms last year, the federal appeals court voted to rehear the matter with an enlarged panel. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers viewed the matter as a critical issue and joined Sessoms in seeking a rehearing. The group filed a friend-of-the-court brief and participated in oral arguments on his behalf.
Sessoms and two other men were accused of the Oct. 20, 1999, burglary, robbery and murder of 68-year-old Edward R. Sherriff, a minister known for his dedication to those in need. He was bound with rope and telephone cord and stabbed 24 times. He was found dead in his mobile home off Elder Creek Road, with his two small dogs huddled next to his body.
Sherriff was an associate pastor of the Cathedral of Promise Metropolitan Community Church at Mather Field. As a gay activist, he comforted AIDS patients and ran a thrift store and food program in Oak Park.
One of those he assisted was Frederick O. Clark, a convicted felon accused of recruiting Sessoms and Adam Leroy Wilson to rob Sheriff of a few hundred dollars the minister kept in his trailer.
Clark, who told the jurors at his trial that he stabbed Sherriff in an explosion of pent-up rage, was found guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances of burglary and robbery, and was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole.
Now 46, he is housed at California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom.
Wilson pleaded guilty to a role in the crimes and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Now 32, he is housed at Salinas Valley State Prison.
Immediately after the murder, Sessoms fled to Oklahoma, where he surrendered to police at his father's urging. Sacramento homicide detectives Dick Woods and Pat Keller traveled to Oklahoma City on Nov. 20, 1999, and interviewed Sessoms.
"Forty seconds into the conversation, before any meaningful exchange took place, Sessoms requested counsel twice in rapid succession," according to Thursday's majority opinion. "First, Sessoms said, 'There wouldn't be any possible way that I could have a a lawyer present while we do this?' Although it was couched in a polite and diffident manner, the meaning of Sessoms' request was clear: He wanted a lawyer then and there.
"If there were any doubt (which there should not have been), Sessoms immediately made a second statement: 'Yeah, that's what my dad asked me to ask you guys. Uh, give me a lawyer.' Simply put, the words 'give me a lawyer' mean just that: 'give me a lawyer.' "
Fletcher, the dissenter on the three-judge 9th Circuit panel last year, authored the opinion.
Every court up to now, including the split circuit panel last year, has found these words too ambiguous to be construed as a clear and unqualified request for a lawyer. Such a request halts an interview in its tracks and the desire for a lawyer must be honored in accord with a landmark 1966 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The detectives continued to engage Sessoms, and eventually, after being informed of his right to remain silent and have a lawyer with him, he agreed to talk and confessed to them.
Before his trial, Sessoms' attorney moved to suppress the incriminating statements, arguing that his client had clearly invoked his right to counsel. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kenneth L. Hake denied the motion.
Editor's note: The first sentence in the sixth paragraph in this story was changed on Aug. 17 to correctly reflect the only dissent in the case's history.