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Verdict overturned for California Death Row inmate in decades-old slaying

On the morning of Jan. 13, 1987, Steven Edward Crittenden borrowed a knife from his roommate, saying he needed it to repair a stereo and would return it the next day.

Crittenden, then a student-athlete at California State University, Chico, left and would later say he went to the gym.

Authorities say he went to rob Dr. William Chiapella and his wife, Katherine, who had hired him three months earlier to do yard work. By that afternoon, the couple were dead.

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.

After his arrest, Crittenden made three escape attempts and eventually was moved to the state prison in Folsom. The case was so shocking that it was the subject of two efforts to move it to a new jurisdiction. The trial eventually was moved to Auburn, where Crittenden was convicted in 1989 and sentenced to death.

Last Monday, after Crittenden, now 46, had spent 24 years on San Quentin’s death row, his conviction and sentence were tossed out. A federal judge in Sacramento faulted the prosecutor’s dismissal of the only African American in the jury pool and ordered the state to either start moving toward a retrial or set Crittenden, who is also African American, free within 60 days.

The decision has stirred outrage in Butte County, where the brutality of the slayings is still remembered and where the couple’s son, who found their bodies, is now a prominent physician. He declined to comment to The Sacramento Bee.

“I am shocked and appalled,” Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsay said this week. “I had to go to his son, who is also a doctor, and tell him about this.

“He just kept saying, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t understand.’ To even think that this monster could get out is frightening. He tortured and butchered those people.”

Crittenden’s two current attorneys have worked on his appeal since their appointments by a federal judge in 1996. One of them, Mark Goldrosen of San Francisco, said U.S. District Judge Kimberley J. Mueller made the correct decision.

“Judge Mueller truly followed the law,” Goldrosen said. “Nevertheless, under the circumstances, it was a courageous ruling.”

He said Crittenden is “obviously thrilled and very excited. He now has much more confidence in the ability of the judicial system to come up with a fair result.” Goldrosen declined to allow his client to speak to The Bee.

The decision promises to rekindle questions about whether Crittenden received a fair trial in the deaths of the Chiapellas, who were white and considered pillars of the Chico community.

The question of race has hovered over the case since before Crittenden’s conviction by a Placer County jury of seven women and five men. The jurors was selected from a panel of 50, and the only African American in that group was removed from consideration by prosecutor Gerald E. Flanagan using one of his 26 peremptory strikes.

Flanagan testified in federal court during the course of the appeal that he has no recollection of the circumstances under which he struck the African American woman from the pool. Trial judge James D. Garbolino, now retired, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows were satisfied Flanagan acted more out of concern for the woman’s negative feelings about the death penalty than the color of her skin.

But Mueller concluded that Flanagan “was motivated, consciously or unconsciously, in substantial part by race.”

Flanagan, who was chief deputy in the Butte County District Attorney’s Office at the time of the trial, declined to comment.

Ramsay said the California attorney general’s office has assured him Mueller’s ruling will be taken to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is Monday morning quarterbacking of the worst kind,” Ramsay said. “It’s trying to read a prosecutor’s mind 25 years later by someone who wasn’t there. The judge who was there and watched the entire jury selection said race played no part. You couldn’t find someone less racist that Jerry Flanagan if you tried.”

“This is the type of ruling,” Ramsay added, “that gives credence to critics that say California’s death penalty system is broken.”

Suspicions about whether Crittenden was targeted by police because of his race linger among some in the Chico area, where feelings ran high in the aftermath of the gruesome crime. Willie Hyman, head of the Butte Community Coalition, a group that tracks racism, calls the area “the Mississippi of Northern California” and insists Crittenden is not guilty.

“It’s the way black people in the county were treated, because the Caucasian family that was murdered was very well known and loved by people,” Hyman said.

The prosecution conceded that its case was almost entirely circumstantial, but said the evidence was extraordinarily strong. Jurors deliberated 17 hours over a four-day period before agreeing Crittenden should be put to death. It was the overwhelming brutality of the slayings, as depicted in photos presented to the panel, that tilted the scales, one juror told a Bee reporter at the time.

“Every time I saw those photographs, they about made me sick,” juror Gisela Clark said after the verdict. “The cruelty of it was unbelievable.”

Crittenden had been a standout athlete in high school in Fairfield and, at 6-feet-4 inches and 180 pounds, was a natural for the Chico State football team. The plan was to use him as a defensive back. Evidence presented in court showed he had money problems as a student and was falling behind on bills, including apartment rent, at the time the Chiapellas were slain.

The couple’s bodies were not found until Jan. 17, 1987, four days after authorities said they were killed.

Two days before the murders, Crittenden called his landlord and told her he would be able to pay all his past-due rent by the 14th, according to court documents.

On Jan. 14, he went to the Chiapellas’ bank in Chico with a $3,000 check signed by Katherine Chiapella and cashed it, then began paying off his bills and paid his rent six months in advance, witnesses would later testify.

Police said they found Crittenden’s thumbprint on an ATM slip in the Chiapellas’ study, matched a footprint in the couple’s home to one of his black tennis shoes, and matched bed sheets used to bind the couple with strawberry-patterned sheets in Crittenden’s apartment.

When he was arrested, he told detectives the check from Katherine Chiapella was for a sexual encounter he had with her on Jan. 9 at the Thunderbird Lodge in room 96. Court documents note that, “tellingly, there was no room 96 at the motel,” and prosecutors called the claim a “fantastic fiction” to hide the fact that he had tortured her to get the check written.

Crittenden’s girlfriend at the time said he returned home the afternoon of the slayings “his normal, happy self” and told her of a $3,000 windfall they could use to pay their bills.

The girlfriend, who married Crittenden in jail as he awaited trial, later divorced him and has since remarried. She declined to comment about the case.

But, she testified, the night the Chiapellas were killed she and Crittenden treated themselves to a movie. They went to “The Morning After,” a 1986 Jane Fonda film about a woman who wakes from a drunken night next to a man who has been stabbed to death.