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Federal panel upholds ruling that Chico death penalty verdict was tainted

Steven Edward Crittenden
Steven Edward Crittenden CA Dept of Corrections and Rehab

A split federal appellate panel on Monday upheld a Sacramento judge’s ruling that a death row inmate’s conviction and sentence for a gruesome double murder in Chico almost 29 years ago was tainted by racism and cannot stand.

Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller threw out the jury’s 1989 guilty verdict and death sentence of Steven Edward Crittenden. Mueller faulted the prosecutor’s dismissal of the only African American in the jury pool and ordered the state to set Crittenden free unless Butte County cranked up a new trial within 60 days.

Mueller concluded that prosecutor Gerald Flanagan was substantially motivated by race when he used one of his peremptory strikes to eliminate Manzanita Casey from the jury that would sit in judgment of Crittenden, who is African American.

Flanagan maintains he struck Casey because of her declared opposition to the death penalty, even though she wrote in a questionnaire that she could follow the law as the court explained it.

Mueller subsequently granted a stay of her order while the state’s appeal was pending.

Two members of a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Mueller on Monday.

The majority opinion was authored by Judge Raymond C. Fisher, who was joined by Judge Marsha S. Berzon.

Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote a strongly worded dissent.

Crittenden, a star football player at Vanden High School in Fairfield and California State University, Chico, was sentenced to die in the gas chamber for the grisly killings of Dr. William Chiapella and his wife, Katherine, who had hired the student-athlete three months earlier to do yard work.

On Jan. 13, 1987, William Chiapella, 67, was stabbed 13 times. He had been gagged with a sock, his head covered with a pillowcase and his hands bound behind his back with strips of bed sheet. Katherine, 66, was found bound and gagged with a blanket over her head, dead from at least two stab wounds and bludgeoning of her head and face with a fire extinguisher.

Knives were left sticking out of both bodies. On mirrors in two bathrooms, the words “Just the beginning” were scrawled in lipstick.

The state attorney general’s office has a number of options. It can ask the appellate panel to reconsider, ask the 9th Circuit for a rehearing before an enlarged panel, or petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsay said his office will retry Crittenden, now 48, if the appellate court’s decision stands.

“We’ve been preparing for that eventuality,” he said.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189

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