A federal judge on Tuesday threw out the death penalty of a transient who fatally stabbed a man 33 years ago on a bank of the American River in Sacramento, then fled in the victim’s car.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton adopted the recommendation of a magistrate judge that a lesser sentence be imposed on Larry Junior Webster, unless the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office initiates a retrial of the penalty phase within 90 days.
“We’re glad the guilt phase was not overturned,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said. “We will take a hard look at the penalty phase and decide whether we want to retry it.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd had found that Webster, the recipient of a Bronze Star for combat bravery in the Vietnam War, was denied a fair trial in the penalty phase because his counsel was ineffective. Karlton agreed with Drozd that Webster was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to “effective assistance of counsel” due to his lawyer’s “failure to investigate and present a mitigation case ... to the jury.”
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Karlton also adopted Drozd’s recommendation that numerous other claims made by Webster to challenge his conviction and sentence be denied.
Now 65, Webster has been on death row since 1983, when he was found guilty by a jury of lying in wait and murdering 36-year-old William Burke so he and some companions could steal Burke’s car. The lying-in-wait and robbery elements of the case qualified Webster for the death penalty.
According to the prosecution, Webster and others lured Burke to a camp near Discovery Park, killed him and buried him in a shallow grave. He was stabbed 25 times.
The group then used Burke’s 1967 Chrysler to flee to Southern California, where they were arrested after robbing a convenience store.
Webster’s defense was in shambles at the penalty phase of the trial.
Drozd found the paltry defense presented by Webster’s lawyer, compared to the information available if there had been a thorough investigation, undermined confidence in the jury’s penalty verdict.
Attorney William Owen was put in an untenable position when, at the request of defense lawyer Vincent O’Brien, he entered the case to defend Webster at the penalty phase, only to learn that O’Brien, who had bowed out because of a heart condition, had done nothing to prepare for the penalty phase.
In a court declaration, Owen said he agreed to take over based on O’Brien’s assurances “that he had been taking reasonable steps in preparation for the penalty phase. ... When I received the files and reviewed them ... I discovered that virtually nothing had been done. ... Mr. Webster’s family had not been contacted. His military file had not been obtained. ... The case was simply not ready to be tried.”
In the end, Owen, aided by an investigator, cobbled together a penalty phase mitigation presentation in the one month allotted to him by Superior Court Judge Sheldon H. Grossfeld.
Owen later testified in a deposition that, even as he presented his evidence to the jury, he felt it was inadequate representation.
The entire transcript of Owen’s presentation is 22 pages. The testimony of Webster’s mother consists of four questions and answers. She identified herself and confirmed that she was there to ask the jury to spare her son’s life.
Then Owen asked, “Larry went to Vietnam. Did you see any change in his personality after Vietnam?”
She replied, “There was a complete change in him when he come back.”
“In what way?” Owen asked.
“He wasn’t the same boy he was when he went in there.”
Contacted Tuesday, Owen’s only comment was, “I’m glad the death penalty was vacated.”