After nearly 13 years on death row, a Redding man’s sentence was overturned Monday by the California Supreme Court, which ruled that he was improperly barred from calling an expert witness.
The court upheld the 2002 murder conviction of Paul Gordon Smith Jr. but said his death penalty sentence was improper.
“Because we cannot say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the penalty determination would have been the same had the jury heard from defendant’s expert, we must reverse the penalty judgment,” said the seven-member court in a unanimous 58-page opinion authored by Justice Carol A. Corrigan.
The Shasta County District Attorney’s Office now has the option of retrying the trial’s penalty phase or allowing Smith, now 37, to serve the rest of his life in state prison.
Smith, who has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison, was found guilty of the gruesome torture and prolonged beating death of 20-year-old Lora Sinner while they were camping in 1998 in the Trinity Alps. Three others camping with Smith and Sinner were charged, but they confessed to the killing and testified against Smith at his 2002 trial.
Kathy Moreno, the Berkeley defense lawyer who argued for Smith before the high court, said Monday, “It is a really deserving case. Any court would have reversed that penalty based not only on the exclusion of evidence but the strong case in mitigation.”
She was referring to the testimony of numerous witnesses who detailed Smith’s difficult life as a child, including prolonged molestation at a very young age by his father and his subsequent journey through multiple placements in the social services system, where he encountered further physical abuse and repeated disappointment in seeking a stable family environment.
At his trial, prosecutors argued that Smith should be executed, citing Smith’s long history of brutal behavior, including the savage beating of a guard and escape attempt from Shasta County jail on the eve of his trial.
Smith “has shown himself to be violent and dangerous in every setting, and he will continue to be so now and into the future,” a prosecutor stated in closing arguments.
Smith’s lawyers in 2002 tried to rebut the argument by calling James Park, a former San Quentin associate warden, as an expert witness to testify that life-without-parole prisoners are watched at all times by an armed guard from a secure location, that no guard enters prisoner areas unless accompanied by another guard, and that prisoners who behave in a dangerous manner are placed in solitary confinement.
But Shasta Superior Court Judge James Ruggiero sustained the prosecution’s objection to allowing Park to testify. The judge ruled that evidence of “what it’s like to be in prison” was not admissible, including state prison security measures. Ruggiero reasoned that the evidence had no relevance to the issues of Smith’s character and culpability or to any aggravating or mitigating circumstances.
However, the Supreme Court said Monday that evidence of prison life is admissible if offered for the purpose of rebutting the prosecution; it ruled that Park should have been allowed to testify.
Keeping Park off the witness stand “significantly enhanced” the impact of the prosecution’s evidence on Smith’s future dangerousness. “Such an unfair advantage on the critical question of penalty offends the fundamental principles of due process,” the justices declared.
Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.