SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The California Supreme Court on Monday threw out the 1992 death sentence of a man convicted of a series of murders and robberies because he was allowed to represent himself at trial even though a psychological examination had found he likely suffered from a delusional thought disorder.
The court on Monday issued a ruling that Billy Ray Waldon's conviction and sentence had to be vacated. The trial judge who in 1989 allowed Waldon to represent himself at trial, the court said, had been wrong to reverse the decision by another judge from a year before finding Waldon didn't rationally perceive his situation and didn't realize the risks and consequences of not having a defense lawyer representing him.
"Judge Boyle abused his discretion by overturning Judge Zumwalt’s Faretta denial while intentionally ignoring her findings and the bases for her decision, and by ignoring relevant evidence, including testimony from three mental health experts that caused Judge Zumwalt to conclude that Waldon was not competent to validly waive counsel or represent himself," Associate Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the court, referring to the two trial judges.
Representatives of the California Attorney General's office, which fought Waldon's appeal, said they were reviewing the . California hasn't executed an inmate since 2006, and in 2022 Governor Gavin Newsom ordered death row to be dismantled.
Waldon, who is imprisoned in San Quentin, was convicted of three counts of first degree murder, as well as attempted murder, rape, burglary, seven counts of robbery, and two counts of animal cruelty. Because he was sentenced to death, his appeal was automatic.
The Tahlequah, Oklahoma, native was accused of going on a two-week crime spree in San Diego in December 1985, including shooting a woman and killing her daughter by setting their house on fire, raping a woman in her apartment, and robbing four other women on separate occasions. When police tried to arrest him, he fled and killed a man nearby. In his car, police found belongings of his victims as well as a box of bullets consistent with the ones used in the murders.
The crime spree landed Waldon on the FBI's most wanted list and he was arrested the following June after he again tried to flee police who had stopped him for a traffic violation.
At his trial, he argued that federal agents framed him for the crimes to thwart his efforts to promote world peace, spread new languages, and advance Cherokee autonomy. After being discharged from the Navy in 1984, Waldon had founded several organizations, including the World Humanitarian Church, the World Esperanto Organization and the World Poliespo Organization, which he claimed was a “rapid thinking” language that he invented by combining Esperanto and Cherokee.
Before trial, Waldon asked the judge to dismiss his lawyers and to represent himself. The judge assigned to his case ordered a psychiatric examination to assess whether he had the mental capacity to waive counsel, and a court-appointed psychiatrist concluded that Waldon did not appreciate the ramifications of waiving counsel and likely had a delusional thought disorder.
Although Waldon was found competent to stand trial, the same judge denied his request to represent himself, saying that while he had "the cognitive ability to understand the proceedings, he cannot formulate and present his defense with an appropriate awareness of all ramifications.”
The case was then delayed while Waldon's lawyer tried to get excused from representing him. The next year, Waldon's case had been assigned to Judge Boyle and he renewed his bid to represent himself. He submitted sworn declarations from people who knew from Esperanto classes and conferences, and Boyle found these a "testament" to Waldon's intelligence and competence.
The justices didn't see it that way.
"Here, the reasons Waldon gave for wanting to represent himself offered no indication that he 'actually' appreciated the 'significance and consequences' of that decision," Liu wrote for the court. "He explained in a public filing that his trial strategy consisted of surprising the prosecutor by insisting on a speedy trial; he said he needed to bring criminal charges against his former trial counsel; he told others he was prepared to die for the principle of self-representation; he claimed that the assistance of counsel violated his religion."
Further, Liu said Waldon’s behavior, including his preoccupation with alleged conspiracies and wrongdoing unrelated to the criminal trial, and his inability or unwillingness to focus on potential defenses, did not signal an appreciation of the dangers and disadvantages he faced.
The 30 years it took to reach this result is symptomatic of the dysfunction of California’s death penalty, Chief Deputy State Public Defender Christina Spaulding said in a email, citing the 2021 findings of the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code that the death penalty has become so complicated and costly that it takes decades for cases to be fully resolved.
"We believe the Court reached the right result in Mr. Waldon’s case," Spaulding said. "He was deprived of counsel at his capital trial and reversal was required."
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