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EXPERTS SAY ALVAREZ DEATH PENALTY ARGUMENTS FELL SHORT ANALYSIS: SYMPATHETIC PERSONAL STORY HELPED SAVE DEFENDANT'S LIFE.

Byline: Tony Castro

Staff Writer

Legal and capital punishment experts say prosecutors who argued strongly for the death sentence for 29-year-old convicted murderer Juan Manuel Alvarez had little chance of winning that recommendation from the jury.

On Tuesday a jury of nine women and three men rejected the prosecution's call for the death penalty, instead believing the defense's contention that Alvarez had not meant to kill or harm anyone. The panel sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the deadly Jan. 26, 2005, crash.

Experts say prosecutors failed to make their case for death -- but note that they also were up against a high standard of proof and faced a defendant with a sympathetic personal story that in the end helped spare his life.

"The evidence, the story the prosecution told about the defendant's intent to kill people, didn't persuade the jury," said Peter L. Arenella, a UCLA law professor and expert on criminal procedure who followed the case.

"The jurors who were interviewed made it pretty clear that while they felt he was doing something terrible to attract attention, it wasn't his desire to kill anybody on that train," Arenella said.

"And without that type of intent to kill, generally juries are going to be reluctant to impose the death penalty when you have the alternative of life imprisonment without any possibility of parole."

Diane Marie Amann, a University of California, Davis, law professor, said prosecutors were also unable to convince the jury Alvarez deserved death because of his horrendous childhood -- having been beaten repeatedly by his father and sexually molested by an uncle.

"I think that although you have the tragedy of so many lives lost, you also have some very troubling information about the defendant," said Amann.

"And we reserve capital punishment in California for people who truly are the worst of the worst and have not only caused great loss of life but have done so in a very evil state of mind. And what was learned about this defendant in the course of the trial is that he's very troubled."

Ellen Kreitzberg, associate professor of law at Santa Clara University's School of Law and an expert on capital-punishment law, raised another issue.

"I think the more interesting question is why the prosecutor decided to pursue the death penalty in this particular case," said Kreitzberg. "Even though there were a number of people who lost life, it at least appears even from an objective look at the evidence and from the jurors' statements that this was predicated on a felony murder -- the fact that it was a felony and people died without any intent to kill being shown by the defendant.

"I think we should be asking whether or not prosecutors should be thinking more carefully or more thoughtfully about seeking the death penalty where they are not really making a showing of any intent to kill."

Lawyers said that under the state's felony murder rule a defendant found guilty of intending to commit a crime in which someone dies -- such as arson in Alvarez's case -- is held liable for murder even if he did not intend to kill anyone.

In explaining their sentencing decision after only about three hours of deliberations, the three male members of the jury said they likely would not have even convicted Alvarez on the 11 counts of first-degree murder in the eight-week trial if it had not been for the felony murder rule.

Pressed on what the jury would have convicted Alvarez of had there been no arson, the foreman said: "If there was no arson, second-degree murder, or I won't go there."

Deputy District Attorney John Monaghan did not return a call seeking comment on whether prosecutors considered not seeking the death penalty in the Alvarez case.

But in a written statement after the sentencing, District Attorney Steve Cooley appeared to address the issue.

"Given the human suffering and loss of life inflicted by Alvarez, this case was appropriately put before the jury for a penalty decision," Cooley said.

Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at Boalt Hall, the University of California School of Law at Berkeley, said there is never an easy answer in pursuing death penalty cases.

"When a jury deliberates on sentencing in a murder case where the death penalty is under consideration, the fact that it is a death penalty case shows that the murder or murders were horrendous enough to warrant its consideration -- but that does not mean that the death penalty is automatic," said Semel.

"A jury takes many things into consideration in its deliberations, and there is no question that there is often an uphill battle for the prosecution and that the death penalty is not a foregone conclusion."

Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders set Aug. 20 as the date on which he will formally sentence Alvarez.

University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist Michael Radelet, one of the nation's leading criminologists and most-cited experts on the death penalty, said that often the extent or even the depravity of the crimes alone does not guarantee death sentencing convictions.

"This case reminds me a great deal of the Jeffrey Daumer case in Wisconsin where so much emotional testimony was allowed during the sentencing phase but Daumer wound up (with) 15 life terms in prison and eventually died there," said Radelet.

"In this case, the jury agreed that this guy is going to die -- it's just going to be in prison and a few years down the road."

tony.castro@dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 20, 2008
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