Monday, July 16, 2007

Retrial dredges up past for longtime Fortuna residents

After a fifth motion to grant Kesser a new trial:

FORTUNA -- An old dusty box in Police Chief Kris Kitna's office is a reminder of the past.

A reminder of a crime that shook the Friendly City over a decade ago and is about to be rehashed in a lengthy retrial.

”This is something we thought was over,” Kitna said in a recent interview.

Jury selection is under way in the homicide retrial of Richard Craig Kesser and Jennifer Gayle Leahy, who allegedly hired Stephen Duane Chiara to kill Kesser's estranged wife in 1991.

Mary Kesser's body was found Nov. 26, 1991, in her N Street home with more than 30 stab wounds.

Chiara was arrested the next day when he was found hiding in Kesser's closet. Kesser and Leahy were arrested Dec. 10, 1991.

”It really affected a lot of people,” Kitna said. “Stuff like that doesn't happen here.”

Since the Kesser killing, there have been two other homicides in Fortuna, Kitna said. One was deemed self-defense, and the other was a murder/suicide pact between an elderly couple.

Kitna worked the case as a sergeant, along with Officer Cliff Chapman. They are the only officers currently on the force who were there when the killing occurred.

Kitna said that Mary Kesser was well known in Fortuna and that the brutality of the crime against the young mother rocked the community.

”This was a good person who got killed,” Kitna said. “This wasn't a drug deal gone bad or something like that.”

Rhonda Rael, who provided “gavel to gavel” coverage of the 1992 trial for the Times-Standard, said in a recent interview that it was who Mary Kesser was that sent shock waves through Fortuna and the county.

”It was particularly sad because she was an innocent victim and a young mother,” Rael said. “I remember Terry Farmer (the district attorney at the time) told me she fought. She fought back.”

After the killing, police offered counseling for officers and residents, Kitna said.

Police were alerted to the case when a relative called and said Mary Kesser didn't pick up her then 4-year-old son from the baby sitter.

Police found the body and the investigation began.

Mary Kesser's son still lives in the area, Kitna said, and is going to college.

Richard Kesser and Leahy were linked to the crime through phone calls made to Chiara's mother and friends in Sonoma County.

The alleged motive for the killing was Mary Kesser's $50,000 insurance policy.

All three of the accused were convicted in December 1992 by a seven-man, four-woman jury. They were sentenced in 1993.

In September 2006, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Richard Kesser and Leahy a retrial after finding that former Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman rejected potential jurors “on the basis of their race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.”

Dikeman has denied the finding.

The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office estimates jury selection, which began last week, will take another three weeks. The trial is estimated to last three months.

Retrial drudges up past for longtime Fortuna residents
Chris Durant, The Times-Standard 07/16/2007

It was Thanksgiving week.


  1. You'd think PVG would've assigned one of his best DDA's for this one?

  2. 459 and counting ............

  3. No, he fired or drove out all of his best DDA's.

  4. Isn't the proper word "dredges"?
    Drudge is a noun, as in drudgery.

  5. Good catch, Bob. Yes. Dredges would be correct. I'll fix it here, but you'll have to get the TS to fix it on their end. :)

  6. Unless they were referring to Matt Drudge. He drudges up a lot of stuff.

  7. The Real Anonymous7/17/2007 8:38 AM

    Unless you are quoting what the newspaper or another person wrote then you should probably leave it the way it is unless they change the word.

    Just a thought :)

  8. Agreed - should not tamper with the actual article. I changed my heading, but left their link intact - though they have since fixed their own online heading.

  9. Just curious if Rose or anyone else has any background on Jay Bybee.I've always agreed with the ruling,but am up for reading a different take.

    9th Circuit Finds Racial Motives in Juror Dismissals

    Matthew Hirsch
    The Recorder
    September 13, 2006
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    Almost 12 years after the fact, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shot down a Humboldt County, Calif., prosecutor's decision to yank three American Indian jurors and one Asian juror from an infamous murder trial, finding all were singled out on the basis of race.

    The court, in a narrow 6-5 majority ruling, swept aside a series of earlier decisions in state and federal courts that upheld the jurors' exclusion in the trial of Richard Kesser. In 1995, Kesser was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for hiring a hit man to kill his ex-wife.

    Though the prosecutor's handling of jury selection had been unsuccessfully appealed up to the California Supreme Court, the 9th Circuit gave it a closer examination under the Batson and Wheeler standards. The lower courts had accepted the prosecutor's nonracial explanations, but the 9th Circuit judges said those excuses fell flat when compared to the full record of the jury selection process.

    "The racial animus behind the prosecutor's strikes is clear," wrote Judge Jay Bybee, who authored the majority opinion in Kesser v. Cambra, 06 C.D.O.S. 8481 .

    In his opinion, Bybee reprinted at length prosecutor Worth Dikeman Jr.'s notes, without citing Dikeman by name.

    There, Dikeman described one juror as a "darker skinned" "[N]ative American female." Noting that the juror worked for a local tribe, Dikeman indicated he wanted to keep such people off the jury because "they are sometimes resistive of the criminal justice system generally and somewhat suspicious of the system."

    Dikeman's notes also included race-neutral reasons for excluding the American Indian jurors. Among those was the prosecutor's observation that one juror appeared "somewhat unstable [and] fairly weak."

    Upon earlier review, the 1st District Court of Appeal concluded that those reasons were not "sham excuses" and upheld the jurors' exclusion.

    Bybee and the 9th Circuit majority disagreed. Dikeman's "ostensibly 'race-neutral' reasons show themselves to be only a veneer, a pleasing moss having no depth," Bybee wrote.

    Bybee criticized the state appeal court for letting Dikeman's jury strikes stand. Not only did the court fail to review the record to find obvious contradictions in Dikeman's reasoning, it erred in finding any "sincere, permissible motives," Bybee said.

    There were two concurring opinions, authored by Judges Kim Wardlaw and Marsha Berzon. The dissent, authored by Judge Pamela Rymer, said the state appellate court's ruling was not an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

    Reached Monday afternoon, Dikeman said he was "very disappointed in the decision, even though I haven't read it."

    Since Kesser's trial, Dikeman said, 19 judges have reviewed his decision to strike the four nonwhite potential jurors. Most controversial was his decision against Debra Ringels, the only one slated to be a member of the panel rather than an alternate.

    "I know what I did, and I know what I did not do. And I did not get rid of that juror because she was Native American," Dikeman said of Ringels. "I got rid of her because I thought she would be a bad juror in that case."

    Kesser's appellate attorney, William Weiner, said he was "very, very delighted" by the ruling, especially given the moderate-to-conservative group of judges picked to rule on his case.

    "When I first got the panel, I was heartbroken to be honest," Weiner said.

    An attorney general's spokesman said the state prosecutor has not decided on seeking a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court. If the 9th Circuit ruling stands, Kesser will get a new trial.

  10. It took Kesser's attorney five tries to get his client a retrial. That's his job, to keep on going, exhausting every appeal allowed by law. trying to find some little detail that might swing it his way.

    In the past the courts have ruled that as long as there were other reasons given for the exclusion, so-called racial reasons were permissible. Certainly not encouraged, and not allowable if they were the only reasons.

    This thing potentially opens the doors for a whole bunch of murderers to get new trials based on "technicalities."

    Remember, this relates to a Wheller Motion - and, until this fifth court ruled in the defense attorney's favor, the ONLY attroney in Humboldt County to have a Wheeler Motion granted against him - on the FIRST try - was Paul Gallegos.

    Anyone who knows Worth Dikeman knows he is no racist.

    And, mresquan, you raise an excellent point and one well worth looking into given the way Gallegos' forces rabidly went on the attack and used this case to manage to get him re-elected despite his attrocious record. The murderer's parents on the Courthouse steps and Cheri Moore, fanning the drums of hatred against cops.

    And now, Gallegos pretends to be their friend, and seeks to establish his own assault team to go on asset forfeiture raids.

    As I said, the conflicts of interest in this case are so great, he should not be handling the case, and he will not be able to extricate himself from this clusterfuck. The Bowman's, the money, the nine felonies, the protestors, using the case as a political football, the Wheeler Motion, Debi August... it's a weird melding of everything Gallegos.

  11. Seems he is generally well regarded, though some didn't like his stance on torture.

    Sworn in last March by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Bybee is a legal scholar who is rapidly becoming “one of the finest constitutional lawyers in America,” according to Judge Lloyd D. George of the U.S. District Court of Nevada. “No matter where you stand politically,” George said, “Jay is universally respected for his intellect, honesty, and ability to articulate the issues, plus he is not a compromiser of principles.

  12. The 9th Circuit Court is a joke! A tragedy, for several reasons.

  13. He should recuse himself from this case because he needs to prioritize the Cherie Moore case.

  14. mresquan - why can't you wrap your head around the fact that he doesn't give a shit about cheri moore or the case at all or the community at all or the police at all. He only gives a shit about himself and that is that. Too bad you wouldn't or couldn't wake up earlier to this reality. He is in on these other cases because he never wanted to be a DA, he just wanted the publicity and the money. When he won the election, he hid under his bed for a while and then figured out that he could finally try some cases and use everyone to bolster him up in court despite his incompetence. Now everything in that office is a mess, because the investigators and staff’s only priority is trying to make him look good.

    My dad always said “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”....seems that you and the other Gags supporters are rightly wearing shame over your own complicity in this fiasco.

  15. Hmm,thanks for informing me that I was a Gags supporter.Didn't know that before now.Hell if you me in any way you'd know that I dislike D.A.'s in general.I did vote for him,only because he was running against Dikeman.Other than that,I never lifted a finger for him.Hell,if Albin Sheets was running I would have at least considered voting for her.She may have pissed some people off,but she was at least honest in her intent to run during the recall.Dikeman came out against the recall and as soon as his good ole boy buddies gave him a talkin' too he avoided that original stance like the plague.
    I just didn't trust that Dikeman was letting the Moore case go to the A.G.He was way to in bed with the police to let that one happen.I think that he would've pushed it under the rug and their would've never been any investigating in the case.

  16. It's a shame you see it that way. But many intelligent, caring, well-meaning people (like you, mresquan) have supported Paul because all they knew was the spin portraying him a certain way. They wouldn't have voted for him if they knew about Salzman's tricks, they wouldn't have voted for him, if they knew about Pelican Bay, they wouldn't have voted for him if they knew he plagiarized his Op-Eds... and so on and so on. That's the past. This is now.

    And now, his record will be more clear. And people will be able to make an truly informed choice.

  17. Worth was not being dishonest. Like many Democrats, he did not like the concept of recall, not in that race and not in the Davis race. But he could not abide the idea of Schectman becoming DA by default.

  18. To the Times-Standard
    Use dictionary for headlines 08/09/2007

    Regarding headlines in your paper: Whoever decides on the wording needs to go back to school, or at least use the dictionary to check the meaning of the words he/she decides to use.

    On July 16, Page 1: “Retrial drudges up dark days.” The word “drudges” makes no sense. Perhaps they meant “dredges.”

    Headline of an AP news release, July 3: “Congress embraces new ethics bill, but White House 'demures'.” There's nothing demure about this White House; they do a lot of objecting, but they're not shy about it. There's a big difference between “demure” and “demur.”

    These glaring mistakes make your newspaper look silly, which is unfortunate because it's pretty good in many ways, and has quite a lot of foreign news in it that might otherwise be missed.

    Grace Harris



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