Jim Porter: Here’s $10 juror – vote guilty
October 27, 2011
TRUCKEE/TAHOE – This 2011 California Supreme Court case is about a prosecutor who purportedly bribed a juror to vote guilty during a murder trial. More on that later, but first here is more about the remarkable murderer on trial – taken from the Opinion.
Curtis F. Price belonged to the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang. In May 1978, while incarcerated at San Quentin Prison, Price stabbed to death Leroy Banks, an African-American inmate, because Banks had acted disrespectfully to an Aryan Brotherhood gang member. Always a good reason to murder someone.
That wasn’t his first crime, nor his last.
During the summer of 1982, the Aryan Brotherhood’s leaders decided to retaliate against Steven Barnes, a prison inmate, for his testimony against Aryan Brotherhood members. Because prison authorities had placed Barnes in protective custody, the Brotherhood leaders decided to kill his father, Richard Barnes, and they selected Price to commit the murder. The Price is right.
As incredulous as this may seem, Price was released from prison in September 1982. That would be four years after he murdered Banks in prison. How did that happen? It took Price no time to get back to business. On January 23, 1983, Price stole a .22-caliber handgun.
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On February 13, 1983, Richard Barnes was found dead in his bedroom with three bullets to the back of his head from the .22. At Price’s trial, prosecutors presented evidence of Price’s post-murder note to the Brotherhood: “That’s took care of. Everything went well.” Grammar is not Price’s thing.
Six days later on the morning of February 19, 1983, Elizabeth Hickey was killed in Eureka. Guns were taken from her home – guns later found in Price’s car. He was a busy guy.
Price was convicted of the first degree murder of Barnes and Hickey and sentenced to death in 1991. A death sentence is automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court. Price filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus using several government-funded lawyers. This is that case.
Bribing a juror
That’s all background information to get your juices flowing. Our California Supreme Court habeas corpus case is about whether Price’s conviction should be overturned because … the prosecutor tried to bribe a juror. Price’s legal briefs recited this evidence: “the prosecutor in this case improperly tampered with a sitting juror by sending her alcoholic drinks and money, telling her to return a guilty verdict.”
On the basis of that claimed evidence, a full investigation was conducted which yielded the following facts which are not consistent with Price’s version.
During Price’s trial, prosecutor Ronald Bass went with a friend to the Cafe Waterfront in Eureka. He had two drinks and appetizers. One of Price’s jurors known as Juror Z.S., a cook at the Cafe, delivered menus to Bass’s table. Prosecutor Bass recognized her as a juror, held up his hands, and said he could not have any contact with her. Z.S. returned to the kitchen. An hour later when Bass paid the bill, he left $10 to $20 as a tip and told the waiter in a joking tone of voice, to “give this” or “split this” with Z.S. and “tell her to vote guilty.” The waiter and others laughed at the remark. The waiter later testified he understood it as a joke. At no time did Bass send alcoholic drinks to juror Z.S., nor did the waiter convey any message from Bass to Z.S. By the time the Supreme Court heard this case in February of this year, 21 years later, Z.S. was deceased.
Did Bass’s poor attempt at humor prejudice Price’s Constitutional right to due process and the right to a trial by an impartial jury?
Supreme Court ruling
The Supreme Court believed prosecutor Bass’s joke was a joke, at least an attempt. The Court additionally found there was no likelihood that juror Z.S. knew about the joke or was biased against Price. No improper jury tampering. Conviction stands.
Porter’s two cents
This illustrates one of the reasons I no longer support the death penalty, which costs the taxpayers on average $250 million per death penalty prisoner, including the Supreme Court’s duty to hear automatic death conviction appeals – resulting in Opinions about bad jokes about bad people – 21 years later.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Fair Political Practices Commission and McPherson Commission, both involving election law and the Political Reform Act. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm’s website http://www.portersimon.com