If you're reading this because you are looking to hire a lawyer for a capital murder case it means that you have someone that you care about that is in a horrible situation. A person charged with capital murder is not entitled to have a bail set, that means the person is in jail with no way to fight the case from the streets. It also means that the D.A. is very confident that they can get a first degree conviction and confident that they can get a death sentence.Here's some basic information about capital cases to get you started. Capital trials are a legal specialty within the legal specialty of criminal defense. There is really only a handful of skilled capital practitioners in California. It requires a separate knowledge base of the law in capital cases as well psychological and mental health evidence.
If you or a family member find yourself needing representation in this specialized field you need a lawyer with experience and proven results because of the unique skills and knowledge necessary for these cases. Typically the District Attorney only pursues the Death Penalty in cases with very strong facts or extreme public outrage. Very often both of these circumstances are present. Every client that is in jail and charged with a crime wants to win the case and go home. In a capital murder case the primary goal is of course to save the client from execution. Executions are rare in California, but the only way to assure that an execution date will not come is to avoid receiving the Death Penalty at trial.
Unlike a non-capital trial, a capital trial is two separate trials within the trial. These two trials are called "phases." The first phase is the "fact phase" (D.A.s and judges call this phase the "guilt phase," I do not use their conviction centered language, this is clearly a biased term). In the fact phase the jury's task is to decide whether or not the client is guilty of first degree and if the "special circumstance" that the D.A. has alleged, for example murder during a robbery or multiple murders, is true. If the client is found guilty of first degree murder and at least one special circumstance is found true, the trial moves on to a second phase, the "mitigation phase" (D.A.s and judges call this phase the "penalty phase," although this term is more accurate than "guilt phase" I don't use it either because it contains bias against the client). The jury's task at the mitigation phase is to decide if the client's sentence is going to be life in prison without the possibility of parole, or death.
I have done two capital trials. That may not seem like a lot, but there are very few lawyers that have even done one capital case, and more importantly both of my clients were saved from the death penalty.
The first was the case of Alex Mendoza. Alex was accused of the torture murder of his girlfriend's young son. Unlike many capital trials, we did not concede the murder and only fight to avoid the death penalty, we fought to win the case. The defense was that the child's injuries were inflicted before he was in Alex's care. The prosecution's case was all about the statements Alex made to the police, and which, if believed, made the prosecution's case rather strong. We presented expert medical testimony to support our position that injuries occurred before the child was in Alex's care. The district attorney focused on Alex's statements. In the middle of trial, I jointly wrote a motion attacking the torture special circumstance and asking the judge to dismiss it. It was a high stakes motion: If granted, the case becomes a regular first degree murder case, if denied it remains a death penalty case, and the killing of child is never a good defense death penalty case.Our team argued the motion and it was granted. Alex was saved from death row. Unfortunately it seems that his statements were too much for the jurors who found him guilty of first degree murder. Alex was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison. The case started with his exposure being years on Death Row followed by death by lethal injection. Instead, someday he will have a parole hearing and may be able to go home.
The teaser that was on the front page of the paper.
The article covering the victory that saved Alex from the death penalty.
The Minute Order from when Alex was saved from the death penalty because Addison and Ryan Hart's motion to dismiss the torture special circumstance was granted.
The other capital trial was the case of Ramon Cebreros. Raymond was accused of the execution style killing a drug dealer. In this case I was lead counsel, which meant that I was responsible for all trial strategy and guided the work of the other members of the defense team. Again, we did not just fight the against the death sentence, we fought to win the case. The district attorney's case was the testimony of a methamphetamine user who testified that Raymond shot and killed the drug dealer right in front of her. The defense was that Raymond did not know the drug dealer, and therefore would not have been allowed in the house, was outside when the shooting occurred, and that it was in fact the methamphetamine user D.A.'s witness' ex-boyfriend that was the shooter. We presented forensic evidence that showed that the methamphetamine user's story could not have been true. The district attorney focused on Raymond's other accused violent crimes and his "eye witness." The jury found Raymond guilty of first degree murder and found the special circumstance true. We then went into the second phase where we presented medical evidence and called witnesses from throughout Raymond's life. After seven month long trial that was a battle at every step, the jury came back with a verdict saving Raymond's life with a verdict of life in prison and rejecting the death penalty.
The newspaper article covering the victory that saved Raymond from the death penalty.
This is the Cebreros defense team that Addison led to Raymond's life verdict. Raymond is at the bottom middle and Addison is at the bottom left.
Questions you should ask an attorney that you are considering hiring for a capital murder case:
- Have you done a capital murder case before?
- This question is important because capital litigation is a highly specialized field. It requires skill, knowledge, training and experience far beyond a non-capital criminal case.
- I have done two capital trials.
- Have you done a capital murder case as lead counsel?
- This question is important because an attorney that has done a capital case as lead counsel has led and taken full responsibility for guiding the work of everyone working on the defense team and has developed and implemented a defense strategy in a capital case.
- I have done a capital trial as lead counsel.
- What were the results of your capital trials?
- District attorneys will typically only seek death in cases in which they are confident that a jury will return a death verdict, however defending capital cases has developed into an almost scientific use of studies of and data on jurors which has resulted in juries returning life verdicts more and more often. So, this question is important because if an attorney has done three, four or five capital trials and has just as many clients on Death Row it says something about the attorney's skill level in capital cases.
- I saved the lives of my clients in both capital trials. I have no clients on Death Row.
- How long were the capital trails and how many days of defense did you present?
- These question are important because a hallmark of deficient capital defense is a short trial with little or no defense being presented. A capital trial that lasts ten or fifteen court days is reason for concern because it's an indicator that the prosecution is not being thoroughly challenged and a complete defense is not being presented.
- I have spent 138 court days in two capital trials where the prosecution was thoroughly challenged and aggressive and complete defenses were presented.
If you need to talk to me about a capital murder case, e-mail me at rasteele@steeledefender or call me at (805) 770-1188.