News Commentary: Death Penalty Shouts and Whispers

Governor's Reprieve Has Little Effect in Santa Barbara

If Pierre Haobsh (pictured) is found guilty of the murder of the Henry Han family, the sentencing phase could be affected by California Governor Gavin Newsom's moratorium on the death penalty.

Paul Wellman (file)

If Pierre Haobsh (pictured) is found guilty of the murder of the Henry Han family, the sentencing phase could be affected by California Governor Gavin Newsom's moratorium on the death penalty.

Even if Governor Gavin Newsom were the sleazy opportunist his detractors contend, he just demonstrated — yet again — a propensity to push the needle in historic ways. First, it was with gay marriage and now it’s with the death penalty. This week, Newsom announced that the death penalty in California is effectively DOA on his watch. That’s in spite of a statewide proposition voters approved two years ago that was intended to speed up executions, not slow them down or eliminate them outright. (Technically, a majority of voters cast ballots to end the death penalty, but an even larger majority cast ballots to speed up the process.)

In his recent announcement, Newsom argued all the obvious points: that California’s death penalty has been a grotesque waste of money with absolutely no deterrent value. To the extent those problems could be ameliorated, he argued, it would only heighten the state’s risk of executing a factually innocent person and that those risks fall disproportionately on people of color.

Given that the state has not executed any condemned inmates since 2006, it’s unclear how many executions Newsom will actually be stopping with his announcement. Of the 737 inmates on Death Row, eight were convicted in Santa Barbara County and sentenced to die by Santa Barbara juries. None of the eight, as far as we know, have been given an assigned date. And some have been there a very long time.

Malcolm Robbins, for example, was convicted in 1983 for a murder he committed in 1980. Robbins was convicted of raping a 6-year-old boy in Goleta on Father’s Day and then strangling him. The victim had kicked the tire of the motorcycle Robbins used to abduct him. Robbins grew up dirt poor in small town Maine where he was sexually abused by at least two of his mother’s boyfriends. At age five, he would be expelled from kindergarten. After that, it was all downhill.

It’s worth noting that there used to be nine Santa Barbarans on death row, but a couple of years ago, convicted killer George “Spider” Wharton’s death sentence was overturned upon appeal. Wharton had killed his girlfriend, Linda Smith, hitting her over the head with a hammer in 1986 and shoving her remains into an industrial-sized laundry-soap barrel. Wharton, a certified psychotic, left her body in the drum and continued to inhabit the apartment they shared for an indeterminate time. His death sentence was overturned in 2016 because the jury never heard testimony about the gruesomely violent sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Nor did the jurors hear fears he’d communicated to his own psychiatrist just days before the murder that he might kill his girlfriend. Wharton was re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Currently, the only Santa Barbara candidate for death row for whom Newsom’s announcement might have relevance is Pierre Haobsh, the grim cipher who on March 23, 2016, shot and killed Chinese herbalist Dr. Henry Han, his wife, Jennie Yu, and their 5-year old daughter, Emily, in their Goleta home. District Attorney Joyce Dudley has indicated her office has no intention of dropping the death penalty enhancements that her office filed against Haobsh despite Newsom’s pronouncement. The governor let it be known he would sign no death penalty warrants while in office, but significantly, no laws were changed and death penalty very much remains on the books. The facts of the Han murders were sufficiently horrific — eight bullets to the head of the 5-year-old girl — that even Dudley, never comfortable with many aspects of the death penalty, felt compelled to file special enhancements against Haobsh.

Haobsh, who remains in custody awaiting trial, has not confessed to the crime, but his emails, phone records, internet search records, the testimony of uncharged accomplices — presumably unwitting — and the smoking gun itself provide a mountain of damning evidence that defense attorney Christine Voss will have a hard time overcoming. Haobsh, a man of mysterious pasts, appeared to have been a skilled — even brilliant — lab technician who worked with Dr. Han on a couple of research projects involving the cannabinoid CBD — one to fight cancer, the other for a skin cream that would fight aging. Haobsh erroneously believed Han had $20 million in his bank accounts. The plan allegedly was to kill Han, transfer the funds, and head off to Mexico. The soonest Haobsh will be tried is sometime next year; the trial setting date is next February 4.

One reason the case is taking so long to get to trial is the avalanche of electronic evidence; a bigger reason is that the case has been filed as a death penalty case, which is really two separate trials — guilt and punishment — not just one. The requirements and procedural safeguards attending death penalty trials are inherently more cumbersome and labor intensive. Just to find a panel of jurors willing to impose the death penalty in liberal Santa Barbara in the time of Trump and when public attitudes have shifted starkly away from law and order will be excruciatingly difficult. Still, pendulums swing both ways. The prosecution thinking, presumably, is that the pendulum will swing back at some point. If and when that happens, Pierre Haobsh will be on death row and not in the general population. Defense attorney Christine Voss declined to comment, citing a gag order imposed on attorneys for the case. The Public Defender's office, for which she works, did issue a press release, extolling Newsom’s decision.

As a practical matter, the death penalty in California was already dead, terminally hung up on protocol controversies surrounding the manner by which lethal drugs were injected. At issue was whether they could be administered in a manner deemed humane. While neither former governor Jerry Brown nor former state attorney general Kamala Harris formally opposed the death penalty, their defense of the state’s procedure was clearly desultory at most.