15 Cal.4th 1385A, People v. Holt

Citation63 Cal.Rptr.2d 782,15 Cal.4th 619
Decision Date19 May 1997
Docket NumberNo. S016076,S016076
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesA, 15 Cal.4th 619, 937 P.2d 213, 97 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 3742, 97 Daily Journal D.A.R. 6322 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. John Lee HOLT, Defendant and Appellant.

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Jerry P. Gordon and Robert M. Myers, under appointments by the Supreme Court, Sherman Oaks, for Defendant and Appellant.

Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General, George Williamson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, Assistant Attorney General, Roger E. Venturi and Gregory W. Baugher, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

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BAXTER, Justice.

John Lee Holt was convicted by a jury in the Kern County Superior Court of the July 6, 1989, first degree murder (Pen.Code, § 189) count 1) of Marie Margie Axtell; 1 first degree robbery (§ 212.5, subd. (a)) (count 2) of Axtell; rape (§ 261, former subd. former (2)) (count 3) of Axtell; sodomy (§ 286, subd. (c)) (count 4) of Axtell; and first degree burglary (§ 460, subd. (a)) (count 5) of the Axtell residence. The jury also found true special circumstance allegations charging that the murder occurred during the commission or attempted commission of robbery, rape, sodomy, and burglary (§ 190.2, former subd. (a)(17)(i), (iii), (iv), and (vii)), and returned a penalty phase verdict of death for the murder. On May 30, 1990, the trial court denied an application for modification of the penalty verdict and imposed a judgment of death. (§ 190.4.) 2

This appeal is automatic. (§ 1239, subd. (b).)

We shall reject defendant's several claims of prejudicial error at the guilt and penalty phases of the trial and affirm the judgment in all respects.

I Guilt Phase Evidence
A. The Prosecution Case

Defendant had been employed for one month in door-to-door sales of household cleaning products on July 6, 1989, when he called at the Bakersfield home of 65-year-old Marie Axtell, a widow who lived alone. He had undergone a short training period before being sent to Bakersfield on July 3, 1989, as part of a 15-person sales crew which was staying in a local hotel. On the morning of July 6, defendant and Cameron Bearden, who had been assigned to assist in training defendant, worked together on one street, after which they split up. Defendant was repeatedly rebuffed in his efforts to make sales.

When defendant arrived at the home of Ms. Axtell, she was lying on the living room sofa. The door was open. When she said she did not want his products, defendant jerked opened the screen door, entered the living room, and sexually assaulted Ms. Axtell, first in the living room and then in the master bedroom of the home. Ms. Axtell was strangled and rendered unconscious at some point during the assault. Defendant then took jewelry from the bedroom, root beer from the refrigerator in the kitchen, and money from Ms. Axtell's wallet, which was on the kitchen table. Returning to the bedroom, he left the unopened root beer on a dresser, took more jewelry, and departed. His company identification badge was found in the living room. His fingerprints were found on items throughout the house, including the root beer can.

Glenn Copeland, Ms. Axtell's son, who lived in Tehachapi, had visited the Axtell house about 8 a.m. He left at 9 a.m. to do an errand for his mother. When he left the house, Ms. Axtell's purse and wallet were on the kitchen table. On Copeland's return to the house about 11:30 a.m., he saw a brown briefcase near the front door. The screen door, which his mother had latched when he left, was unlatched and open several inches. The latch had been bent. Alarmed, he entered and found his mother unconscious, lying face-down on the floor in the bedroom. What appeared to be a bag was in her mouth and a cloth was wrapped around her neck and double knotted. Copeland called 911, and after again checking his mother's condition went next door to seek assistance. As he left the house he confronted defendant who was picking up the briefcase. When accused, defendant denied being inside the house. When Copeland again accused defendant of being in the home, defendant said he was going to check with his boss in the van across the street. There was no van across the street. Copeland directed defendant to remain, but when Copeland returned two

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minutes later from the house of the neighbor, defendant and the briefcase were gone. Emergency vehicles arrived several minutes later and Ms. Axtell was taken to the hospital.

Just after he saw an ambulance on the street defendant was supposed to be working on, Cameron Bearden saw defendant near the pickup area for the sales crew. Defendant beckoned him to come over. Bearden observed that defendant was "hyper," his hair was "messed up," and he did not have his briefcase. The briefcase was one issued to salespeople by the company. It contained a "sales kit" of items used in making the sales presentation. Defendant said his briefcase was at the pickup area. Bearden saw the briefcase at the pickup stop. Defendant and Bearden were picked up by a supervisor in a company van. Defendant told the supervisor that he had not made any sales. The supervisor then dropped the two men off in the same area even though defendant said he wanted to work in another area. Defendant left the sleeveless vest he always wore, even in the Bakersfield heat, in the van.

The two men were then stopped by Detective West who had heard a police radio call regarding an attempted homicide and a description of a suspect. Defendant was carrying a brown briefcase. The location of the detention was one block from Ms. Axtell's home. West questioned defendant and Bearden who denied having been on the street on which Ms. Axtell's home was located. He spoke to them for about 10 minutes.

Aubin, another officer, who had heard a description of the suspect, arrived to back up West, as defendant and Bearden were walking away. He detained defendant and Bearden at the request of Detective West who arrived with Ms. Axtell's son. Glenn Copeland told the officers that he believed he recognized the briefcase carried by defendant, and one of the men as the person he had seen at his mother's house.

The officers conducted a pat-search of Bearden and defendant preparatory to placing them in a patrol car. Aubin found a pen, ointment jar, and jewelry in defendant's right front pants' pocket. Defendant was arrested and a more thorough search revealed $160 in $20 bills and cigarettes in the left front pocket.

In the meantime, Ms. Axtell was transported to a hospital where she died on July 15, 1989, without regaining consciousness. An examination at the time of her admission revealed no external trauma to the vaginal area. The vault was red, which was consistent with penetration by an adult penis, however. There was no evidence of external trauma in the anal area, but evidence of blood was found in a stool sample or the rectum. This was consistent with penetration by an adult penis. Other forensic evidence also connected defendant to the assault.

An autopsy revealed the following external injuries. The tip of Ms. Axtell's hyoid bone, located high in the throat area above the voice box, was fractured, as were the second and third cartilaginous rings of the trachea, located in the midline of the throat. The damage to the hyoid bone was consistent with manual strangulation. Fractures of the cartilages of the larynx can be seen in either manual strangulation or ligature strangulation. The pathologist later testified that bruises appearing in photos of Ms. Axtell's neck area were consistent with ligature strangulation. The cause of death was hypoxic brain damage due to strangulation. Death was the result of pneumonia involving both lungs with abscess in the lower lobe of the right lung which resulted from the brain damage.

Bearden identified the company photo-identification card found in Ms. Axtell's home as that issued by the company to defendant and testified that the briefcase was also company issue. He had been surprised at the amount of money found in defendant's pocket. The company never provided more than a $25 draw for lunch and other expenses, and during the time Bearden worked with defendant, defendant made very few sales.

Ms. Axtell's purse and wallet held no currency when examined by police. Ms. Axtell had cashed a $200 check on July 3, 1989, receiving all of the money in $20 bills. On July 4, she had spent just over $39. The

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jewelry in defendant's possession was identified as belonging to Ms. Axtell.

At the Bakersfield Police Department after his arrest, defendant had been advised of his constitutional rights. He had waived them and was questioned by Detective Boggs. Boggs testified that defendant initially denied any involvement in the crimes, but later admitted he had assaulted Ms. Axtell. He said he had been aggravated by people slamming doors in his face and became irritated when she said she was not interested in his products. When she told him to leave, something in his head "snapped," he got mad, jerked open the screen door, and grabbed Ms. Axtell with both hands around her throat and began to choke her as she rose from the couch. When his hand tired as she struggled and tried to escape, he released her and picked up a cloth he found in another part of the living room. He then returned to Ms. Axtell and placed her in a "choke hold." She continued to struggle until he tightened the choke hold and she became limp and semiconscious. He then wrapped the cloth around her neck and twisted it until she became unconscious. At some point he warned her that if she did not stop moving he would have to hurt her.

Defendant then dragged the victim into the bedroom, threw her onto the floor next to the bed and sexually assaulted her. He did not recall whether he had anal or vaginal intercourse, but had ejaculated. He denied...

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