A man sentenced to death for the 1985 murders of the Charles Goldmark family in Seattle is entitled to a new penalty trial because he was in a hospital when the jurors were polled, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
David Lewis Rice’s lawyers were not entitled to waive his right to be present when the jury announced its sentencing verdict, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 decision which upheld a federal judge’s ruling.
Noting that a single juror can prevent a death sentence under Washington law, Judge Edward Leavy said Rice’s presence was vital because “each juror would have to look Rice in the eye and reaffirm his or her jury-room vote by declaring in open court that Rice did not deserve to live.”
The court also revived Rice’s challenge to his convictions, unanimously ordering a federal judge to hold a hearing on claims that his lawyers had failed to determine his mental condition before letting him talk to police and the press.
Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire lashed out at the decision, saying it disregards rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and only serves “to frustrate the public’s demand that their criminal laws be carried out fairly and expeditiously.”
Gregoire said she especially is disturbed by the appellate court’s decision to order hearings on the guilty verdict.
“With a ruling like this, there’s no end in sight. What is especially egregious in this case is that none of the claims at issue deals with whether Rice committed the murders.”
Gregoire said she expects to appeal at least portions of the ruling.
The state argued Rice had relinquished his right to be present by trying to commit suicide and that his absence could not have affected the verdict.
But attorney Timothy Ford, a consultant to Rice’s appellate lawyers, agreed with the court that the effect of a defendant’s absence could not be measured and automatically requires reversal of the death verdict.
Attorney Charles Goldmark; his wife, Annie; and their two sons, Colin and Derek, were disabled with chloroform and then fatally beaten and stabbed in their home on Christmas Eve 1985.
Rice, arrested two days later, confessed to the crimes after talking to a lawyer, the court said. The prosecution said the motive was robbery, but defense lawyers said Rice was motivated by a delusion that Goldmark was the leader of a communist conspiracy that was poised to order an invasion of the United States. The jury found Rice sane.
The appeal of Rice’s death sentence focused on a decision by King County Superior Court Judge Jim Bates to hear the jury’s penalty verdict in Rice’s absence.
After the jury said it had reached a decision in the penalty phase of the trial, Bates learned that Rice had been rushed to a hospital after swallowing several packs of cigarettes ground up in hot water. Whether he was trying to kill himself was not established, Leavy said, because Rice previously had drunk liquid nicotine as a substitute for smoking.
After learning that Rice could not return to court for at least two hours, Bates received permission from his lawyers to let the jury announce its verdict and be polled in Rice’s absence.
But U.S. District Judge Jack Tanner said Bates’ decision was a serious error, and the appeals court majority agreed.
A defendant can waive the right to be present during any portion of the trial, but Bates failed to determine that Rice had waived his rights, Leavy said in the majority opinion.
All three doctors who had examined Rice concluded he was suffering from a paranoid delusional disorder. Leavy said there was enough evidence to support Tanner’s conclusion that Rice was mentally ill and unable to waive his right to be present.
Leavy, joined by Judge Dorothy Nelson, said a defendant’s absence when a death verdict is announced and the jurors are polled is a fundamental defect in a trial that requires reversal of the sentence.
Chief Judge J. Clifford Wallace dissented, saying reversal is required only if the error is likely to have affected the jury’s decision.
Regarding the guilt phase of the case, the court overturned Tanner’s decision to dismiss Rice’s challenges of his convictions without a hearing to determine disputed facts. Hearings are required on several issues, particularly a defense claim that Rice’s court-appointed trial lawyers were inadequate, Leavy said.
Among other things, the defense contends Rice’s lawyers failed to determine his mental competence before letting him talk to the police and confess, failed to ask prosecutors for psychiatric evidence that could have helped their insanity defense and improperly encouraged Rice to speak to reporters.