A Sacramento Superior Court jury convicted Steven Arthur Duarte of first-degree murder Thursday in the March 18, 2008, shooting death of Serena Lynne Williams in her Carmichael home. Prosecutors said Duarte killed Williams because he thought she gave him HIV.
Jurors also found that Duarte, 56, murdered a man in Sacramento in 1975. The jury's confirmation of the special circumstance allegation of his previous murder means he is likely to be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Judge Timothy M. Frawley scheduled Duarte's sentencing for Oct. 19.
According to court documents, Duarte pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the May 24, 1975, shooting death of Donald Erdman.
Detectives told the Sacramento grand jury that indicted Duarte that the victim had been shot once in the head. Erdman's body was found on the American River levee near North 10th Street with his pants down to his knees, the documents said. The area has been long known as a gay sex trysting spot.
Duarte received a term of seven years to life in prison for the 1975 murder, according to court documents. He served five years before he was paroled.
"They must have felt he served his time," Deputy District Attorney Scott Triplett said of the decision by the old Board of Prison Terms to release Duarte. "They could have kept the guy in forever. The minimum eligible release date was five years."
In Duarte's current case, jurors found he premeditated the shooting death of Williams, 35, whose body was found found slumped over her kitchen stove in her residence in the 4900 block of Douvan Court. She had been shot once in the left eye.
Delays in the current case, questions about the memory of a key witness and Duarte's own poor health were factors in prosecutors' decision to not seek the death penalty for his murder of Williams, according to Triplett. "This case was getting older and older," Triplett said.
At one point in the proceedings, Duarte had attempted to represent himself, then had the assistance of two other defense lawyers before winding up with Jesse Ortiz as his attorney. The shuffling of the attorneys figured prominently in the delays, Triplett said.
The memory of John Pratt, an important prosecution witness, also figured into the decision to refrain from the death penalty, Triplett said. Pratt testified at trial about Duarte's admissions to the Williams killing while the two of them were cellmates in the downtown jail. Pratt, however, later became the victim of a severe beating, which temporarily affected his memory.
"We weren't sure how it would play out for us," Triplett said.
"Thankfully, he recovered well and his memory was intact in our case."
Triplett said that Duarte has both hepatitis C as well as HIV, "and we felt the reality of him ever being executed was low because of his health."