LA Forensics: The Sandwich Shop Murders
Robinson received a court-appointed appellate lawyer, Susan Marr, to argue the merits of his complaints about the second trial. He objected to the sentence on several grounds. In his appeal he listed issues with the jury selection, the jury instructions, and the admission of an excessive amount of victim-impact testimony in the form of lengthy narratives. Some of the victims' relatives had described how they had imagined the victims' final moments, based on the medical examiner's report. Robinson claimed this unfairly prejudiced the jury against him.
In 2005, the California Supreme Court disagreed with every argument he made, except the one about victim impact testimony, and upheld the death penalty. They did not address the merits of his claim about unfair jury prejudice.
"Strong evidence linked defendant to the crimes," wrote Chief Justice Ronald M. George for the court, including Robinson's prior employment at the shop, his financial distress, his reference to robbing the shop before it was done, and the match of the fingerprints and the bullets that killed the victims. He also had a lot of cash the day after the crimes, when he claimed he had none just prior. "We have not found any error in the penalty phase of the proceedings. The defendant received a fair trial."
Another issue involved the medical examiner's testimony. Based on the bullet trajectory through James White's skull, Dr. Rogers had offered three different positions from which Robinson could have shot the boy. One was from the counter, which was excluded by the eyewitness testimony, one was from lying on the floor, which seemed awkward and thus unlikely, and one was from a standing position as the victim knelt on the floor. This one seemed most likely to him, given the fact that the victim was several inches taller than Robinson and the trajectory was at a downward angle. Robinson had objected to the image that the boy was praying or pleading on his knees, but the justices found that the Medical Examiner was within a professional context to form and state such an opinion to the court. Thus, Robinson's protest was dismissed.
The court left open the possibility of a challenge on the basis of victim impact testimony, so it might be found during a federal appeal to have been excessive. However, the fact that Robinson's attorney had not objected to any of it at the time will be a factor in the court's consideration. Perhaps, then he can argue that he had had ineffective counsel.
For SID, this case affirmed the importance of careful processing, because only one of the many items of evidence had been able to definitively undermine Robinson's story and pin the crimes directly on him.
* Some names have been changed to protect identities.