People v. Mroczko

Decision Date08 December 1983
Docket NumberCr. 21159
Citation35 Cal.3d 86,197 Cal.Rptr. 52,672 P.2d 835
Parties, 672 P.2d 835 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Richard John MROCZKO, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Sanford J. Rosen, San Francisco, for defendant and appellant.

Vincent John Scally, Jr., Deputy Atty. Gen., Sacramento, for plaintiff and respondent.

KAUS, Justice.

On May 22, 1978, Jay Love, an inmate at the California Men's Colony (CMC) was found dead in his cell, asphyxiated by a metal coat hanger wrapped around his neck. Four months later, Richard Mroczko and Thomas Brindle, fellow inmates, were charged with Love's murder. After a six-week trial in the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, during which Brindle and Mroczko were represented by the same counsel, Mroczko was convicted of first degree murder and eventually sentenced to death. Brindle was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to a term of seven years. Mroczko's appeal to this court is automatic. (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 11; Pen.Code, § 1239, subd. (b).)

We hold that as a result of the joint representation of Mroczko, Brindle, and Dennis Hall--a witness to and uncharged suspect in Love's death--Mroczko was denied effective assistance of counsel. His conviction must therefore be reversed. 1 We further hold that in the future separate and independent counsel should be appointed for jointly charged indigent defendants at the outset of criminal proceedings.


The prosecution's case against Mroczko was based almost entirely on six inmate witnesses: Louis Archuleta, Mark Asbill, Jerry Daniels, Marcelino Garcia, Ralph Jones, and Robert Schneider. These witnesses testified generally that Mroczko and Love had been sexually involved, that they fought on the morning of May 22, 1978, that Mroczko, Brindle, and possibly Hall--another inmate--murdered Love, and that Mroczko made a number of damaging admissions.

The evidence tying Mroczko to the murder was strong. However, the inmate witnesses disagreed on virtually all the particulars of the crime--especially the respective roles of Mroczko, Brindle and Hall.

At the time of Love's death, Mroczko, Brindle and Love lived in nearby cells. While Mroczko and Love had been sexually involved, they quarreled often during the two weeks before Love's death. A guard testified that Mroczko was attempting to break off his relationship with Love. Between 8:30 and 9 a.m. on the morning of the murder, Jerry Daniels, an inmate who lived on the same corridor as Mroczko, saw Mroczko, Brindle and Dennis Hall standing in front of Hall's cell. At trial, Daniels testified that Mroczko said, "I think we ought to kill him." Hall added that "[h]e needs to be killed." Hall was "stirring it up" and "wanted to see something happen." Brindle said little except that he wanted to "kick his ass" but did not want to kill the person they were discussing. Daniels did not know at the time who was being discussed but the person was "supposed to be an informant."

Pretrial, Daniels had given a different version of this story to Richard Moreno, a state investigator. Moreno testified Daniels told him that Mroczko wanted to "kick Love's ass to get him to shut up" but it was Brindle who thought Love should be "taken out completely." Daniels explained to Moreno that Brindle had a particular motive to kill Love: to prevent him from "snitching" and jeopardizing his upcoming parole. 2

Later the same morning Louis Archuleta, Robert Schneider, Mark Asbill and Ralph Jones heard Mroczko and Love arguing. 3 About 9:30 or 10 a.m., Archuleta saw Mroczko enter Love's cell. About two hours later he heard someone scream "Louis." The scream was cut off and Archuleta heard what sounded like kicking against the metal cell wall. Archuleta left his cell to check the time. It was 11:27 a.m. He then picked up a broom and began to sweep the hallway. As he passed Love's cell, he looked through a crack between the door and wall and saw Brindle crouching, looking out, as though watching for guards. Although he did not see Mroczko, Archuleta knew he was still inside the cell because he would have had to pass Archuleta's open cell door to leave the area. According to Archuleta, Brindle and Mroczko remained in Love's cell during the 11:30 lockup. 4

Marcelino Garcia testified that after the 11:30 lockup ended, he went to pick up a friend, Jose Lopez, to go to lunch. Garcia lived in another section of the building, but Lopez's cell was on Love's hall. As Garcia walked down Love's hall, he saw Mroczko and Brindle enter Love's cell. Garcia looked through the window of Love's cell door, hoping to see a sexual act. Instead, he claimed to have seen Brindle squeezing Love's neck with a wire or rope and Mroczko holding Love from behind. He then contradicted himself, testifying instead that Brindle held Love while Mroczko had him by the neck. 5 Garcia watched for a few seconds and then continued down the hall to his friend's cell. After discovering that Lopez was not in, he walked back down the hall and again looked into Love's cell. This time he saw Love spitting saliva as Brindle and Mroczko were placing him on the bed.

About 1 p.m. that afternoon, a broken sink caused a flood in the hallway. Archuleta saw Mroczko in the hall and told him that water was running into his cell and that his belongings were getting wet. Instead of mopping his own cell, Mroczko was "all excited" and used a broom to keep the water from flowing further down the hall in the direction of Love's cell. Dennis Joller, a guard on the floor, also noticed that Mroczko seemed anxious to keep the water from flowing in the direction of Love's cell.

At 3:30 p.m.--hours after all other prosecution evidence suggested Love was killed--Ralph Jones heard Love yell: "You dirty bastard." Mroczko and Brindle were in Love's cell at the time.

In the evening, Garcia, who was apparently still unaware that he had witnessed a murder rather than a sex act, approached Mroczko in the television room and said: "I saw what you did." Mroczko got red in the face and told him to go away.

A number of other witnesses testified to admissions and incriminating conduct by Mroczko. However, all of these "admissions" suggested that the murder was not premeditated. Between 11 a.m. and noon of the day of the murder, Mark Asbill heard Mroczko tell Todd Young, "I didn't mean to." He repeated the phrase two or three times. Robert Schneider saw Mroczko leave Love's cell, shaking badly. Later in the day he heard Young say to Mroczko: "I didn't know you were going to kill him." Mroczko did not respond. Late in the evening, Ralph Jones heard Brindle call Mroczko a "stupid asshole." In response, Mroczko told Brindle to get off his back and that it was an accident. Mroczko sounded upset. Brindle was angry.

During the 10 p.m. lockup, guard King noticed that Love had been lying in the same position on his bunk since the 4 p.m. lockup when he had assumed Love was asleep. King entered the cell, removed the blanket covering most of Love's body and face, and discovered a wire hanger wrapped tightly around Love's neck. An autopsy determined Love died as a result of strangulation by means of a wire coat hanger. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy concluded that his death was not a suicide because of the tightness of the loops in the hanger and the fact that the hanger had been knotted twice. He believed Love could not have made the second knot before passing out. In addition, bruises on Love's right palm were "defensive" and consistent with trying to push away a wire.

After Love's body was discovered, Mroczko was interviewed by county detectives. When asked if he had any idea who killed Love, Mroczko stated that he did not but that back in New York coat hangers were a common way to kill people. The detectives had not told Mroczko how Love was killed. When they asked Mroczko how he knew that Love had been murdered by the use of a coat hanger, Mroczko claimed he had heard another officer discussing it.

The prosecution also presented evidence that Mroczko's weightlifting gloves--"dobermans" as he called them--had miniscule black paint chips on them. After extensive analysis, these chips were determined to be "consistent" with the paint on the hanger used to kill Love--i.e. the paint could only have come from a "fairly limited population of black alkyd finishes formulated exactly like the finish" on the coat hanger. 6

Mroczko's and Brindle's defenses were based on separate alibis. Brindle claimed that he was working as a quality control inspector in the prison laundry from 8 to 11:50 a.m., and went directly to lunch from the laundry. His testimony was corroborated by a number of defense witnesses. Mroczko, on the other hand, had an incomplete alibi. Dennis Hall, Mroczko's best friend, testified that he dropped by Mroczko's cell after 11 as he was returning from his prison job. He stayed until the 11:30 lockup. After the lockup he went to pick up Mroczko to go to lunch and found him dozing in his cell. They lunched together. This still left Mroczko without an alibi for most of the morning, including the crucial period of the 11:30 lockup. Mroczko admitted that he had had the opportunity to kill Love and that he had been attempting to end his friendship with him. 7

The primary thrust of the defense was to impeach various prosecution witnesses, particularly the sole purported eyewitness, Garcia. Garcia had come forward more than four months after the murder. His version of the events on May 22 differed from that of all other prosecution witnesses--except possibly Jones--because he testified that the murder occurred after the 11:30 lockup. More important, Garcia could not adequately explain how he came to witness the murder in the first place. Garcia did not live on the same hall as Love but testified that when he saw Mroczko strangling Love, he was on his way to go to lunch with Jose Lopez, an inmate on Love's hall....

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