Convicted cop killer Luis Bracamontes was in court for less than five minutes Monday before he slipped back into regular form for the first day of his death penalty trial.
Bracamontes, who was convicted last month in the slayings of Sacramento sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr., was ushered into court for the start of testimony by Oliver’s partner, Scott Brown.
But, as he has numerous times during court hearings in the case, he unleashed a profane tirade as Brown began to testify, shouting that Brown and his partner were “bothering people” when they asked him for ID in October 2014 and Bracamontes set off on his deadly rampage.
“That’s why I killed the mother------, huh,” Bracamontes said. “You’re all f------ cowards,” he added before he was led out by deputies.
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As Bracamontes was led down a staircase, he looked directly at the families of the deputies and cackled loudly.
Some off those family members are expected to testify later Monday and Tuesday about how Bracamontes’ crimes have affected them.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White had asked the jury to leave as Bracamontes erupted, but they were in the courtroom to hear most of his tirade.
When they returned, White reminded them that he has ordered in the past that they not consider his outbursts as evidence. This time is different, White said, instructing them that because they are considering what penalty to apply to him, they may pay attention to his behavior.
Bracamontes had not been in court for most of Monday’s session because he had asked not to be present for any of the penalty phase.
White agreed he could skip the opening statements, but had to be present for evidence such as Brown’s testimony.
Sacramento County prosecutor Rod Norgaard opened the penalty phase of Bracamontes’ death penalty case with a simple, short and soft-spoken statement that lasted less than six minutes and was as designed to leave the most emotional moments for the family of his victims to describe.
Before he was ushered in chained and smirking, prosecutors set out to convince jurors that Bracamontes’ crimes require a death sentence rather than the life without parole term his public defenders want. But they clearly feel the testimony of family members and friends of the slain deputies will be more powerful than their own arguments.
“I’m not going to explain the losses to the family,” Norgaard said. “It’s for them to tell you.”
Brown told jurors how deeply his partner’s slaying has affected him, at times breaking down emotionally.
Some jurors smiled reassuringly toward him, others passed a tissue box.
Brown recalled how, after returning to duty following Oliver’s death, he suffered a panic attack during the first vehicle stop he attempted. The slaying affected “every aspect of my life,” Brown testified, describing himself as a “broken toy” who had to seek help from his church in deciding how to tell his 6-year-old son that his “Uncle Danny” had been killed.
Brown recounted how his son told him he already knew, that a friend had told him what happened, and that the boy later asked, “Dad, how come you didn’t protect Danny?”
“Of course, he didn’t mean anything by it,” Brown said.
Brown said that before the slaying he went to work without worrying about calling his wife throughout the day to let her know he was all right, but that has changed. “My poor wife,” he said. “She’s never worried about it before.”
Brown was followed by one of Oliver’s sisters, Penny Miller, who tearfully recalled how her brother looked out for family members and friends and how Oliver said he wanted to became an officer to serve people.
More family members are expected to testify Tuesday.
In the face of such emotional testimony, and his own outbursts, Bracamontes’ public defenders have a difficult task: convincing the jury that their client’s crimes were an aberration driven by methamphetamine abuse and mental illness after a lifetime of trying to build a life for himself and his family.
Defense attorney Norm Dawson spent an hour describing Bracamontes’ difficult childhood and later life to the jury, noting that he was born into a home in rural Mexico that had no running water, no electricity and no toilets, either indoor or outdoor.
“You went to the bathroom virtually in a field until you were 12 years old,” Dawson said. “This is the world that Mr. Bracamontes was born into.”
As he did during the penalty phase of the trial – when he freely admitted to the jury that Bracamontes shot Oliver and Davis – Dawson emphasized he was not making excuses for his client.
“It’s very important you understand we are not trying in any way to justify the actions of Mr. Bracamontes,” Dawson said. “We can’t.”
Instead, he said, he hoped to demonstrate that his client had worked hard to build a life in Arizona and, later, in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, where he worked as a landscaper and painter until meth use and mental illness led him to his crime spree in California.
Bracamontes was in the country illegally for most of his adult life, since sneaking over the border from Mexico at age 16, and his status as a cop-killing illegal immigrant has focused national attention on him from immigration opponents, including President Trump.
Despite that, Monday was the first time his immigration status was mentioned in court, with Dawson conceding that he had been deported several times and had been convicted in Arizona of drug crimes as a young man.
The defense hopes to show – through testimony from Bracamontes’ siblings, employers from Utah and mental health experts– that their client can be sentenced to life in prison and receive treatment to ensure he never again harms anyone.
That may be a hard sell for the jury, which convicted him on all counts last month and has witnessed his outbursts during trial, including his issuing threats to some jurors.
“Mr. Bracamontes was not born to do what he did,” Dawson said. “To be sure, it’s horrible.
“To be sure, he should be punished.”