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In re Bell

Supreme Court of California

June 8, 2017

In re STEVEN M. BELL on Habeas Corpus. S151362

         Court Superior County San Diego Richard Murphy and Joan P. Weber Judge

          Habeas Corpus Resource Center, Miro F. Cizin, Kevin Bringuel, Eileen Connor, Anne D. Gordon and Paula Fog for Petitioner Steven M. Bell.

          Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gary W. Schons and Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorneys General, Holly D. Wilkens, Michael T. Murphy and Lynne G. McGinnis, Deputy Attorneys General, for Respondent State of California.

          WERDEGAR, J.

         Steven M. Bell, who is under sentence of death for the first degree robbery murder of Joey Anderson, petitioned this court for writ of habeas corpus claiming, among other things, that a holdout juror in the penalty deliberations solicited her husband's advice regarding her vote and, based on that advice, switched her vote to a death sentence. We issued an order to show cause on this claim of juror misconduct and ordered an evidentiary hearing before a referee in the superior court. After hearing testimony, the referee found the alleged misconduct did not occur.

         We conclude the referee's findings are supported by substantial evidence and entitled to this court's deference. Because no misconduct has been proven, we will discharge the order to show cause and, by separate order, deny Bell's petition for writ of habeas corpus.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Petitioner Bell's trial for the killing of Joey Anderson was conducted in October through December of 1993 in San Diego County Superior Court. Petitioner was convicted of first degree murder with a robbery-murder special circumstance (Pen. Code, §§ 187, 189, 190.2, subd. (a)(17)) and, in March 1994, was sentenced to death for the crime.

         We affirmed Bell's conviction and sentence in People v. Bell (2007) 40 Cal.4th 582. Our appellate opinion recites the facts of the crime, which are not pertinent to the jury misconduct claim at issue here. In very brief summary, petitioner fatally stabbed Joey, the 11-year-old son of petitioner's girlfriend, while stealing a television and boom box belonging to Joey and his mother; petitioner then sold the appliances to get money for crack cocaine.

         In his habeas corpus petition filed in this court in 2009, petitioner claimed Juror M.H. committed misconduct during the deliberations on penalty by consulting with her husband over how she should vote. Support for the allegation came from the declaration of another juror, P.R. According to P.R.'s 2009 declaration, she and M.H. initially voted for a life sentence and eventually were the only holdouts against the majority, which voted for death. The declaration continues: “On the last day of deliberations, [M.H.] approached me in the hallway before we entered the jury room and confessed that she had broken down and spoken to her husband about her dilemma the night before, to see if he could help her out of her dilemma, and he advised her to change her vote.” M.H. and P.R. both changed their votes to death.

         The petition also included a declaration by M.H., who remembered little of the penalty phase deliberations. As to the allegation of misconduct, M.H. declared, “I do not recall if I voted for death at the beginning of deliberations, or not until the end of deliberations, and I do not recall telling [P.R.] on the day we reached our penalty verdict that I had spoken to my husband the night before and then decided to change my vote from life to death. Susan Lake [the investigator for petitioner's counsel] asked me about this specifically, and I told her that I do not recall speaking to my husband and [P.R.].”

         We issued an order to show cause on this claim of jury misconduct and, after receiving the People's return and petitioner's traverse, ordered the San Diego County Superior Court to appoint a referee and conduct an evidentiary hearing on specified factual questions:

         (1) Did Juror M.H. discuss the jury's deliberations, or any other aspect of the case, with her husband during her service as a juror?

         (2) If so, when did the conversation(s) occur?

         (3) What information or advice, if any, did M.H.'s husband give M.H.?

         (4) Did M.H. tell Juror P.R. about a conversation between ...


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