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The People v. Corey Leigh Williams

February 7, 2013


Contra Costa County Super. Ct. No. 961903-2-02 Judge: Richard E. Arnason

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Corrigan, J.

Defendant Corey Leigh Williams was convicted of the first degree murders of Maria Elena Corrieo and Maria Eugenia (Gina) Roberts.*fn1 The jury returned true findings on the special circumstances of multiple murder and murder in the commission of burglary and robbery.*fn2 It found that defendant personally used a firearm in both murders,*fn3 and that his co-defendant was armed with a firearm.*fn4 Defendant was also convicted of two counts of first degree robbery and one count of first degree burglary, all with personal firearm use, arising from the same incident.*fn5

Defendant was given the death penalty.*fn6 This appeal is automatic. We affirm the judgment.


A. Guilt Phase

1. Prosecution

Maria Elena Corrieo, age 74, lived with her disabled daughter, Gina Roberts, age 53. Mrs. Corrieo owned a restaurant in Concord, and did not trust banks. When the restaurant closed each evening she would take the paper currency home in her apron. Periodically she would consolidate the proceeds into $100 bills, which she kept in her car.

The victims were discovered by another of Mrs. Corrieo's daughters, Lili Williams, on August 16, 1995. Williams had last seen Corrieo and Roberts the previous evening at the restaurant. Several times the following day she called the restaurant and was concerned to learn her mother was not there. Williams and her ex-husband drove to Corrieo's house, where they found her car parked at an unusual angle and items lying on the ground nearby. The front door of the house was open. Williams found Corrieo and Roberts on the floor. After hugging and trying to comfort them, Williams realized they were dead. The phone lines had been cut, but Williams's ex-husband was able to flag down a police officer.

Contra Costa County criminalists examined the crime scene. Both Corrieo and Roberts had their hands tied behind their backs. They had been shot in the head. Bullets were embedded in the floor beneath them, and blood spatters also indicated they had been shot "in place." Three .40-caliber Smith & Wesson cartridge casings were found near Corrieo, and four near Roberts. The parties stipulated that the murder weapon was People's exhibit No. 11, a Glock .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Autopsies revealed that the victims died from their gunshot wounds. Fragments of a bullet lodged in Corrieo's head weighed approximately the same as a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson bullet.

David Ross was the principal prosecution witness. He admitted participating in the crimes along with defendant and Dalton Lolohea, and testified that defendant was the shooter. Ross's credibility was therefore critical, and highly contested at trial.

Lolohea, Ross, and defendant were friends. Lolohea told Ross he knew of a car with $30,000 in the trunk. A cook in Mrs. Corrieo's restaurant was the source of the information. On the night of the murders, Ross met Lolohea and defendant, and the men agreed to break into the car. They drove to Ross's house, where he kept a .40-caliber Glock pistol. He testified that it was the same pistol as People's exhibit No. 11, or "almost identical" to it. The men had ski masks, and Ross gave them socks to use as gloves. They found Corrieo's car at the restaurant, but decided not to break into it there. Instead, they followed the victims home, planning to coerce them into revealing where the money was. On the way they donned the masks and put the socks on their hands. They agreed to address one another as "Baby," to shield their identities. Defendant had the pistol.

At Corrieo's house, defendant and Lolohea forced the victims inside while Ross searched their car. He "threw everything" from the victims' car into Lolohea's car. When Ross entered the house, the victims were lying facedown on the floor. Defendant stood over them, holding the pistol. Ross and Lolohea ransacked the house looking for a safe or cashbox, then took a large television to Lolohea's car. They returned to the house, where Ross said to defendant, "C-Dog, ask them where the money's at." Defendant yelled at Ross, "Don't fucking call me by my name. . . . Don't call me C-Dog."*fn7

As they were tying the women's hands, Roberts struggled to her knees, protesting. Ross kicked her in the back. At his direction, defendant hit Roberts "full force with his fist in her face, hit her about three or four times. Then she fell down." Thinking they were finished, Ross said to Lolohea, "Let's go." Lolohea told Ross to get in the car. He said he and defendant would make sure the phone lines were cut and the victims "wasn't going anywhere for a while." Ross sat in the car for a few minutes, heard a gunshot, and saw Lolohea run outside. By the time Lolohea reached the car, Ross heard three more shots. A minute later defendant ran from the house and jumped into the car. Ross asked him, "What did you do in there?" Defendant said he "shot them bitches." Ross asked why. Defendant responded that he shot them because they heard Ross call him "C-Dog."

The men drove to Walnut Creek and left the television set with a friend, saying Ross would pick it up the next day. Next, they drove to a hangout of theirs, an isolated parking lot in an industrial area of Concord known as "Stanwell." There they searched the material they had stolen. Defendant found the money. They "high-fived," and drove to Ross's house to divide the take. Ross managed to skim off $4,000 before they split the remaining $36,000.*fn8 He gave his sister $500 and asked her to hide his ski mask and black sweater.

The next day Ross and defendant went to a mall where defendant bought a bracelet for his girlfriend, Wendy Beach. They drove to Beach's house and defendant gave her the bracelet. Eventually, Ross gave the murder weapon to his friend Clemus West, telling him to "get rid of it."

Ross testified before the grand jury with the understanding that he would not be subject to the death penalty for these crimes. Afterward, he was offered a term of 25 years to life. He declined on the advice of counsel, and eventually pled guilty in return for a 20-year sentence.

On cross-examination, Ross admitted lying to the police repeatedly, at first denying and then minimizing his involvement in the crimes. He said it was "all a lie" when he told the police "all of the stories . . . about not really knowing what was going on, and not wanting to be part of it, and that it was all a big surprise to [him] when [he] showed up at this house." Ross also conceded that he had not been forthcoming about his past criminal activity when he testified before the grand jury. He had admitted a theft conviction, but failed to mention crimes that apparently did not lead to convictions: shooting at an occupied vehicle, robbery, and burglary, as well as selling crack cocaine and stolen property.

Ross testified that when the police first questioned him, they assured him they did not think he committed the murders and believed he may not have even known that anyone would be robbed, much less killed. During that session, before his arrest, the officers permitted Ross to confer with Lolohea for 14 minutes. Whispering in case the conversation was being recorded, Ross told Lolohea he had lied to the police to protect him. "I told the police you were in the car [when the shots were fired] to make it easier on you."

Bernadette Ross was Ross's younger sister. She testified that one evening Ross gave her $500 and asked her to hide a ski mask for him. He told her that he, defendant, and Lolohea had robbed two women of around $40,000. He said defendant, whom she saw in Ross's room that night, had killed the women. Ross also told her they had burned some items "in Stanwell."

Deborah Hall worked at a business on Stanwell Drive in Concord. The morning after the murders she noticed burned rubble in an adjoining alley. Among the charred materials were a matchbook cover and order pad stubs from Corrieo's restaurant, and a collectible automobile card. Sergio Corrieo testified that he had given the card to his mother the night she was murdered.

Wendy Beach confirmed that the day after the murders, defendant came to her house with Ross and gave her a bracelet. Defendant was arrested on unrelated charges later that day. He called Beach from jail and asked her to go to a friend's house to pick up some money he had left there. She collected over $20,000, which was recovered by police officers when they executed a search warrant at her home.

Aziz Al-Ouran testified that he purchased a Glock pistol, similar to the murder weapon, from Clemus West.

A criminalist went to Tijuana to examine a car, and found Lolohea's fingerprints on items inside. The parties stipulated that transfer material found on several areas underneath the trunk lid came from the stolen television set. They also stipulated that a heel print found at the crime scene matched a boot belonging to Lolohea.

Defendant was moved from San Quentin to Folsom Prison in December 1996, after he was charged with the murders. Upon his arrival at Folsom, he was recognized by Sergio Corrieo, the son and brother of the victims. Sergio had been incarcerated for felony drunk driving, and his work assignment included helping guards process new inmates. When he saw defendant, Sergio asked to be relieved of duty, telling his supervisor that defendant "was a suspect in my family's murder and that I didn't want to do anything stupid." Sergio was placed by himself in a nearby room, where he learned from a co-worker that defendant was in an adjoining cell. The solid metal door between the two rooms had a three-inch gap at the bottom. Sergio got down on his hands and knees and called to defendant through the gap. Defendant responded. Sergio asked him, "Do you remember Maria Elena Corrieo?" Defendant paused, then replied, "Yeah." Sergio said, "You're a dead man, mother fucker."

During his subsequent intake interview, defendant told the officers on duty, "I need to lock up." They understood him to mean that his life was in jeopardy, and he needed to be placed in protective custody. Asked to explain, defendant said "they are going to stab me," but declined to identify who "they" were. When asked "why would they stab you?" defendant replied, "because I killed two Hispanics." Further details surrounding this admission are discussed post, in part II.B.1.

2. Defense

William Hazelton testified that he and David Ross were housed in the same module of the Contra Costa County jail in the spring of 1996. Ross once showed Hazelton a photograph of his child and said he did not think he would ever see her again. Hazelton demurred, "you don't know that." Ross responded, "Billy, man, I'm here for some serious case. . . . I wasted these two bitches."

At the time of defendant's trial, Hazelton was serving a sentence of 123 years to life for a home invasion robbery and two bank robberies, with prior convictions. Hazelton acknowledged that one could gain status in prison by "doing injury to rats and to snitches." However, he insisted that he would not lie in court and had no animosity toward Ross.

Defendant's mother Teri Barela provided an explanation for his possession of a large sum of cash. She said she gave defendant $20,000 to $25,000 following the sale of her grandmother's house. Barela, a prostitute from the age of 12 and a drug addict,*fn9 was concerned that she was "going through" her inheritance. She told defendant not to return the money until she was clean and sober. Barela did not know whether the money seized in this case was hers. "Possible, but I don't know."

Although Barela would not have trusted defendant "not to steal 20 bucks sitting on [her] bureau," she insisted she did entrust him with $25,000. When previously questioned by an FBI agent, she said the most she had given defendant was $3,000 for a car. She told the agent she would never have given defendant a large sum like $20,000.

Lieutenant Raymond Ingersoll, the lead investigator in this case, confirmed that Ross initially denied, then minimized, his involvement in these crimes. Ingersoll "very much" agreed with defense counsel's characterization of Ross as "changing his story all over the place . . . on virtually every aspect of this case." When Ingersoll initially questioned Ross's sister Bernadette, she provided no relevant information. However, after Ross testified before the grand jury, Ross's attorneys contacted Ingersoll, and Ingersoll questioned Bernadette again. She admitted that Ross had given her $500.

On December 5, 1995, Manuel Hernandez was brutally beaten by three men he confronted for suspicious behavior at a neighbor's house. Another neighbor, James Grady, saw the beating. He saved Hernandez from further injury by warning the attackers that the police were coming. Grady later recognized Ross as the principal assailant when he saw his photograph in the newspaper after his arrest.

B. Penalty Phase

1. Prosecution

Danielle DeBonneville, who lived in the same apartment complex as defendant, once heard him fighting with his pregnant girlfriend. DeBonneville and her boyfriend went to see if they could help, and found that defendant had "punched [his girlfriend] in the face and knocked her out." Defendant approached DeBonneville with a bat and threatened kill her if she tried to take his girlfriend to the hospital.

About two months later, DeBonneville was in a park with her boyfriend, a member of the Sureno gang. They were approached by eight to 10 men carrying bats and guns and wearing ski masks and red bandanas, a color associated with the rival Norteno gang. The men asked, "what do you claim?" DeBonneville replied, "We do not claim anything." A man hit DeBonneville in the face. In the ensuing melee, she pulled his mask off and saw that it was defendant. He and the others began "beating me with bats and kicking me, stomping me to the ground. One of them picked me up and tried to break my back. . . . I lost the feelings [in] my legs." One of the men "started trying to pull my pants down," but was unable to do so. DeBonneville estimated that she was "hit or kicked or struck with bats" 40 or 50 times.

The men surrounded DeBonneville, forced her to her knees, and held her hands behind her back. Putting a gun to the center of her forehead, defendant said, "Say good night." DeBonneville managed to free one hand and strike at the gun as it fired, so that the bullet entered her head at the hairline. She heard voices saying, "Oh, my God, is she dead? . . . You shot her man." The assailants fled. The bullet lodged in her skull, and was removed two years later.

Defendant represented himself during the penalty phase. He conducted this cross-examination of DeBonneville: "Q. Do you think that I feel sorry that you were shot? [¶] A. Do I think you feel sorry? [¶] Q. Yes. [¶] A. Yes. [¶] Q. I'm not." There were no further questions.

Alicia Todd testified that she had a romantic relationship with defendant for nine or 10 months. He once punched her in the face during an argument.

Sergio Corrieo testified that his mother had 10 children and 37 grandchildren. She was the nucleus of the family and cared for victim Roberts. After Mrs. Corrieo's death, the family had to sell both her house and her restaurant to pay off the restaurant's liabilities.

2. Defense

Defendant put on no evidence at the penalty phase. His closing argument was as follows:

"Now that you've heard the aggravating circumstances against me, it's your time to decide if I receive life or death. I'm not going to stand up here and cry or ask you for any sympathy. I know that you've noticed that I don't seem to care what happened with DeBonneville. It's because I actually don't. That is a side of me you'll never understand. But at the same time I regret having assaulted Alicia Todd. She was honestly an innocent victim. I also regret leaving my daughter fatherless. I want to make it clear that I do feel sorry for certain things.

"Either today or tomorrow you will decide my punishment for a crime in which I still claim my innocence. No matter what you decide, I will always be me. You the jury have found me guilty of all counts in this case, and have heard aggravating circumstances. You will notice that I did not put on a defense to show mitigating circumstances of people testifying on my behalf. That's because I don't blame my lifestyle on other people. My actions are my actions and mine alone. I chose the life I lead. It might seem outrageous to you people, but it's a lifestyle that I understand. I would like for you 12 people to have the heart to look me in the eye when you've decided my punishment. At least try to. I want you 12 people to try and realize that our frame of mind is not that much different. It's just that I am willing to do whatever I feel needs to be done. I understand there are consequences and repercussions for everything I do in life, and I'm willing to take the chance and deal with the outcome later. So in your deliberations, do as you deem necessary.

"Thank you. That's it."


A. Jury Selection

Defendant contends the excusal of Prospective Juror W.M. for cause was prejudicial error under the federal Constitution. Although the question is somewhat close, we disagree.

A prospective juror in a capital case may be excused for cause if his or her views on capital punishment "would 'prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.' " (Wainwright v. Witt (1985) 469 U.S. 412, 424.) Prospective jurors "may not know how they will react when faced with imposing the death sentence, or may be unable to articulate, or may wish to hide their true feelings." (Id. at p. 425, fn. omitted.) Accordingly, "deference must be paid to the trial judge who sees and hears the juror" and must determine whether the "prospective juror would be unable to faithfully and impartially apply the law." (Id. at p. 426; see also Uttecht v. Brown (2007) 551 U.S. 1, 9 ["Deference to the trial court is appropriate because it is in a position to assess the demeanor of the venire, and of the individuals who compose it, a factor of critical importance in assessing the attitude and qualifications of potential jurors"].)

" 'On appeal, we will uphold the trial court's ruling if it is fairly supported by the record, accepting as binding the trial court's determination as to the prospective juror's true state of mind when the prospective juror has made statements that are conflicting or ambiguous. [Citations.]' " (People v. Thomas (2011) 51 Cal.4th 449, 462.) " 'In many cases, a prospective juror's responses to questions on voir dire will be halting, equivocal, or even conflicting. Given the juror's probable unfamiliarity with the complexity of the law, coupled with the stress and anxiety of being a prospective juror in a capital case, such equivocation should be expected. Under such circumstances, we defer to the trial court's evaluation of a prospective juror's state of mind, and such evaluation is binding on appellate courts [Citations.].' " (Id. at pp. 462-463.)

We begin with W.M.'s views on the death penalty, as revealed by his answers on the jury questionnaire. Asked to state his general feelings regarding the death penalty, W.M. wrote: "I believe the death penalty is right. I personally would have a difficult time living with the fact I was partially responsible for putting a person to death." He was then asked whether he believed the state should impose the death penalty under four sets of circumstances: (1) the killing of a human being; (2) an intentional killing; (3) a killing during a robbery or burglary; and (4) more than one killing during a robbery or burglary. In each case, W.M. checked the box for "Sometimes." Asked whether the views he expressed in response to this series of questions were based on religious considerations, W.M. checked "Yes."

W.M. was "moderately in favor" of the death penalty, and "strongly in favor" of the penalty of life in prison without parole. In response to another question, he indicated he had actively supported ballot initiatives that reinstated or expanded the death penalty in California. He did not believe in the principle of "an eye for an eye," and he did believe our criminal law was based on that concept. He also thought the death penalty was imposed too randomly.

The court questioned W.M. about a comment on his questionnaire that "too many criminals go free because of a technicality." W.M. said he could set aside that view and base his verdict on the evidence. The court also asked about the death penalty. W.M. gave an affirmative response when the court said it understood he believed life without parole and death were "equal opportunit[ies]" from which the jury could choose. He said he was not "predestined to vote for death or . . . life."*fn10

Defense counsel's voir dire was largely directed at another questionnaire response: W.M. wrote that he did not understand why anyone would want to be a criminal defense attorney. He explained that his feelings about the profession were negative. He agreed when defense counsel asked if he might be inclined to "give the guy on this corner [presumably, the prosecutor] a little bit of [a] leg up." However, when asked "would it be fair to say . . . that you don't think you should be on this particular jury?", W.M. responded: "Oh, I have feelings about what should happen, but I mean it's -- my own religious convictions, I don't know whether I could actually bring myself to bring to the right conclusions that should be brought." He added, "I mean a person I feel is -- well, how should I say? Everybody has got a right to life I guess." Defense counsel asked if that included the victims in this case, and equally the defendant, and W.M. answered in the affirmative.

The prosecutor's voir dire, which we quote in full, focused exclusively on W.M.'s death penalty views.

"[Prosecutor:] Mr. [M.], I don't think I understood your views on the death penalty. Were you telling [defense counsel] here a moment ago that you would be unable to impose the death penalty personally?

"[W.M.:] When weighing the evidence, probably I could, yes, if it's in such -- but I -- my own subconscious, I just don't know. I just don't believe it. Even though I voted for it, I just -- my own personal -- my own personal being I think it's right, but my own personal being I'd have to pass.

"[Prosecutor:] Okay. So listen, just because you voted for it and agree that it's okay in principle, doesn't mean that's something you'd want to do yourself?

"[W.M.:] Right.

"[Prosecutor:] To use an example, I am pleased to see that the Oakland Raiders got a decent offensive line, but it's not something I could do myself or ever would want to do myself. So that's my question for you, are you ...

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