Late on an August afternoon in 1996, Marvel Chase was fatally shot at the wheel of his Mercury Cougar while stopped at the intersection of 48th Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Sacramento.
A green Mustang had pulled alongside the Cougar, and within seconds gunfire erupted from inside the Mustang. Chase jumped into the back seat of his car, yelling he was hit. Two passengers managed to get the Cougar to the parking lot of an AMCO transmission shop and paramedics were called.
Chase, just 17, died on the way to a hospital from a bullet that went through his heart.
Two years later, a Sacramento Superior Court jury found Richard Alex Williams guilty of murder with special circumstances and two counts of attempted murder. Williams, 18 at the time of the shooting, was the driver of the Mustang, according to evidence presented at his trial.
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He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and is incarcerated in Lancaster at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County.
But Williams could be released under an order from U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton unless the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office moves to retry him by Aug. 25.
On the recommendation of U.S. Magistrate Judge Allison Claire, Karlton found that the trial of Williams was constitutionally flawed when the prosecutor, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Robert “Rob” Gold, kept an African American woman off the jury because of her race, and attempted to justify his action with reasons that amounted to pretexts.
At trial, Gold told the judge that he dismissed the woman, the only African American available to serve on the jury, for a number of reasons. He said she wanted to discuss her petty theft conviction, which occurred when she was 21, in private and that the theft spoke to the woman’s honesty.
The woman told of a bad experience with a police officer, Gold said, and she strongly disagreed with the proposition, “If the prosecution brings someone to trial, that person is probably guilty.” She strongly agreed with the proposition, “It is better for society to let some guilty people go free than to risk convicting an innocent person,” Gold said, and he said she felt the criminal justice system treats people unfairly because of their race, ethnic background or lifestyle.
He also said the woman was single and never married, and other prospective jurors were better suited to hear the case.
Virtually everyone involved in the Aug. 12, 1996, shooting – including Williams and a passenger in the Mustang, Chase and his two passengers in the Cougar, as well as witnesses – are African Americans. Williams’ trial attorney, Jeffrey Fletcher, is also African American.
Once the case cleared the trial court, it followed a well-worn path through the 3rd District Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court, the federal trial court in Sacramento and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was not until 2011, when the circuit court sent the case back to Sacramento for further proceedings, that the ground under the verdict began to crack.
“It’s a long time coming,” Fletcher said in a recent interview. Referring to the federal appellate action that turned the case’s momentum in Williams’ favor, he said, “It had to go one step below the United States Supreme Court to get a true analysis of what happened. That’s scary.
“It’s unfortunate but true that prosecutors exercise their peremptory challenges to eliminate prospective jurors who share the same ethnicity with defendants. It’s disturbing and it hurts because it’s not playing fair.”
State Supervising Deputy Attorney General Carlos Martinez has asked Karlton for a stay of the order pending appeal. Karlton has not yet ruled on Martinez’s motion.
Decisions like the one in the Williams case inevitably rankle and frustrate prosecutors. But this is even more vexing for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office because Gold is not just a face in the crowd. He is a well-known and well-respected member of the office who has been entrusted with several high-profile trials over the years.
In a recent interview, Gold said he was “devastated” when he first read the findings and recommendations Claire submitted to Karlton.
“After 16 years, during which a number of judges reviewed the record and saw no problem, there is suddenly a problem,” he said. “It erases a conviction for the murder of a 17-year-old and the work of all those judges.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me. I’m sick about it.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said people in the office are “very disheartened” by the ruling. “We strongly disagree with the magistrate judge’s reasoning and her interpretation of the facts.”
“We would appreciate a stay, but we are moving forward, going out and finding witnesses and doing what we have to do if we are forced to retry the case now,” Grippi said.
He recalled that a three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento found Gold’s dismissal of the African American woman “appropriate by any standard.”
In his objections to Claire’s findings and recommendations, Martinez wrote that to chalk up a majority of Gold’s reasons to pretext “is not only a finding of discriminatory intent, but also a determination that Mr. Gold repeatedly lied” to the trial judge while reciting his reasons for dismissing the woman after Fletcher objected “and then repeatedly lied at the two-hour-long evidentiary hearing” last year in federal court.
Gold’s “high moral character … directly contradicts the notion that he would improperly exercise a peremptory challenge and then repeatedly lie under oath,” Martinez wrote.
But Claire wrote that opinions about Gold’s integrity “are of little to no probative value regarding the question whether the strike of (the prospective juror) was discriminatory. Many otherwise upright persons are motivated on occasion by prejudices that are endemic to society.”
Claire rejected Martinez’s attempt to include a declaration from the now-retired trial judge, Jeffrey L. Gunther, as part of the evidence for her to consider. Gunther vouched for Gold as an honest man “who seeks justice.”
The retired jurist said it had been his normal practice to take into account “the prosecutor’s reputation as well as his conduct in court” when faced with an objection like Fletcher’s. That is how he weighed the matter at the Williams trial, he said.
“I did so not only because it is an appropriate consideration, but also because I have no tolerance for racial prejudice,” he said in the declaration.
Claire, on the other hand, cited a critical finding by the 9th Circuit that no detailed evaluation of Gold’s credibility ever took place at the trial.
“Judge Gunther cannot have considered the prosecutor’s reputation and conduct in court, because he did not evaluate the truthfulness of the prosecutor’s reasons for striking” the African American woman, Claire wrote.
She added: “Although the inference of pretext is stronger regarding some of the prosecutor’s reasons than others, the totality of the circumstances demonstrates that the prosecutor’s negative evaluation of (the woman) was sufficiently inconsistent with his evaluation of non-African American jurors to support a finding that race was a substantial factor in the strike.”
In the interview, Gold countered: “In effect, what the court ruled I should have done was to keep a juror who had been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty, and who believed not only that the criminal justice system unfairly discriminates against persons based on race, ... but also believed that she had personally been discriminated against by two officers.
“No reasonable prosecutor would have kept a juror of any race who gave these answers.”