For the second time in two years, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that a federal judge must order the release of one of three men found guilty for the 1999 murder of a beloved Sacramento minister and gay rights activist, unless local prosecutors want to retry him, because he was denied his constitutional right to an attorney while under police questioning.
An enlarged panel of the appellate court ruled by a 6-5 margin that Tio Dinero Sessoms’ “unambiguous” request for an attorney was unlawfully ignored by Sacramento police detectives.
The same panel with the same split had ruled the same way in August 2012. Just as it did the first time around, the appellate court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez with directions that he order the state to release Sessoms unless the district attorney in Sacramento wants to retry him.
Neither of those things happened because, at the state’s request, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
On one issue, the high court reversed the circuit’s decision that legal precedent requiring a suspect’s unequivocal invocation of a right to counsel did not apply to Sessoms because his remarks came before the detectives informed him of his rights. The Supreme Court decreed that the precedent does apply in such circumstances and sent the case back to the circuit.
But the majority of the 9th Circuit panel had also noted in its 2012 opinion that, either way, Sessoms “clearly expressed his desire for an attorney.” The Supreme Court did not weigh in on that point.
So, on Monday, the enlarged appellate panel once again found that “Sessoms’ statements, taken together, are a far cry from ... ambiguous ...”
It was not until Sacramento police Detective Dick Woods “convinced Sessoms that a lawyer would simply get in the way that Sessoms relented and gave Woods what he wanted: incriminating statements made without the benefit of counsel” according to the court’s opinion Monday. What happened “illustrates precisely why, once a lawyer is requested, questioning must stop.”
The panel again sent the case back to Mendez. Whether the state will now be directed to retry Sessoms or cut him loose is still an open question.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said he is “pretty sure” his office will ask the California attorney general’s office to try to get the case back before the Supreme Court, but he said he still has to find out if that is District Attorney Jan Scully’s wish.
Sessoms, 34, was found guilty in 2001 of murder, burglary and robbery. He is currently housed in Folsom at California State Prison, Sacramento.
He and two other men were charged with robbing and killing 68-year-old Edward R. Sherriff, a minister known for his dedication to those in need. He was bound with rope and telephone cord and stabbed 24 times. He was found dead in his mobile home on Elder Creek Road, with his two small dogs huddled next to his body.
Sherriff was an associate pastor of the Cathedral of Promise Metropolitan Community Church at Mather Field. As a gay activist, he comforted AIDS patients and ran a thrift store and food program in Oak Park.
One of those he assisted was Frederick O. Clark, a convicted felon accused of recruiting Sessoms and Adam Leroy Wilson to rob Sherriff of a few hundred dollars the minister kept in his trailer. Clark told the jurors at his trial that he stabbed Sherriff in an explosion of pent-up rage.
Clark, 48, was found guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. Wilson, 34, pleaded guilty to his role in the crime and was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Immediately after the murder, Sessoms fled to Oklahoma, where he surrendered to police at his father’s urging. Woods and his fellow homicide detective, Pat Keller, traveled to Oklahoma City on Nov. 20, 1999, and interviewed Sessoms.
Forty seconds into the conversation, Sessoms asked, “There wouldn’t be any possible way that I could have a – a lawyer present while we do this?” He then said, “Yeah, that’s what my dad asked me to ask you guys. ... Uh, give me a lawyer.”
The 3rd District Court of Appeal and the U.S. District Court, both in Sacramento, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, all detected some vagueness in Sessoms’ remarks. It was only when the issue got before the circuit’s 11-member panel that things turned around.