A Matter of Life or Death

Judge Raymond Carlton stroked his graying mustache as he reflected on the opinion, just received, affirming the judgment in his death penalty trial of Ralph Jackson, a jury verdict he would never forget.

Five years before, on a Tuesday afternoon the lingering bay fog left an ominous pallor over Parchester Village, an older enclave in northwest Richmond, built for African American ship workers after World War II. Edna Mae Washington died too soon that afternoon in Parchester Village. Edna Mae, an attractive, kindly 74-year old, was the beloved, generous godmother to many neighborhood children. The front screen door of her well-kept home was shoved back, the door left wide open, and her body lay on the kitchen floor. None of her neighbors heard anything or saw anyone leave the home. The street had been characteristically quiet, but now was filled with inconsolable neighbors and friends who rushed to be near after learning the news of her death. Ubiquitous yellow crime tape prevented them from pressing any closer.

The homicide team and county criminalists confronted a hideous scene. Edna Mae had been raped and strangled to death with her pantyhose, a crime so horrible that it was incomprehensible to even the most hardened officers. The house was carefully processed for evidence, but there were no finger prints, no hair samples, no shoe marks, seemingly scant trace evidence anywhere. Articles of clothes and other items were carefully put in evidence bags and labeled for identification, and the scene memorialized with a multitude of photographs.

The investigation became personal because the officers knew the victim well from her community work, admired her, and felt as if someone evil had ripped a family member from them. Some officers volunteered to work overtime without pay to try to find any lead, tediously review records of sex offenders, and canvass the neighborhood again for anyone who was at home that afternoon. A break came when a criminalist was able to find a small trace of a semen stain on a piece of clothes, and develop a useable DNA sample that was sent to the DOJ laboratory in Berkeley for follow-up analysis. But after months of exhaustive investigation, the case went tepid, then cold, and into a seemingly dead end cul-de-sac.

Some steeped in criminal law have felt a god of justice hovers over certain crimes that merit punishment, often leading to fortuitous developments. This happened in the Washington homicide.


Eighteen months later, Joanne Dirkson, having earned dual degrees in chemistry and forensic science, started her new job with the DOJ laboratory that was months behind in processing DNA evidence. To help catch up she worked late most nights and doggedly examined images of known and unknown DNA samples for comparison purposes. After several weeks of methodically reviewing samples from the central data base, she paused one night, looked again, and as if revealed by a burst of divine light, realized she hit upon a reference sample from convicted sex offender Ralph Jackson that matched the crime scene DNA with similar alleles at 8 loci, the first cold hit ever in Contra Costa County. The Richmond Police Department was ecstatic at the news.

Investigators learned 43-year old Ralph Jackson was on parole for a violent sex offense at the time of Mrs. Washington’s death and had been living nearby in San Pablo.

A nervous Ralph Jackson was detained and questioned about what he was doing on the afternoon of Edna Mae Washington’s death. Jackson remembered working as a laborer on a roofing job in Parchester Village. The detective told Jackson an elderly woman was killed about that time. Jackson teared up, biting his lower lip. The questioning officer asked Jackson if he wanted to talk about what happened that day and Mirandized him about his rights. Jackson waived his rights, began to cry, and then struggled to explain. He could not purge from his memory what he had done that afternoon, as if a tormenting hound of heaven snapped at his conscience. The detective, in disbelief, listened as Jackson related a lifetime of being unable to control certain sexual impulses that led to a number of rapes and attempted sexual assaults. He explained he went for a walk during a noon time break at work. Some blocks later, an older women in her front yard asked him if he would like a cup of coffee and invited him in. While in the kitchen, he was overcome by urges to have sex with her, forced himself on her, killed her, and ran out. Jackson retreated within himself, did not want to discuss anything further, and was booked at the Martinez Detention Facility

The District Attorney sent investigator Ken Curtis, the office’s most accomplished interrogator, to the Detention Facility to question Jackson further. Curtis introduced himself and explained he was interested in some of the details of what happened on that Tuesday afternoon. Jackson was slumped down, his hand partially holding and hiding his face. Curtis, a master at probing an accused’s psyche, in a soft conversational voice asked Jackson if he wanted to talk. Curtis said he too had done some bad things in the past and talking about them helped him relieve the pain and find remorse. Jackson was placed in a poorly lit room like a scene in a noir film, with dark shadows on the floor and walls that held video recorders. Curtis quickly explained Jackson’s Miranda rights to him. Jackson said he attended some group therapy sessions at a church to try to understand the evil of his actions. With tearful responses Jackson told Curtis generally what had transpired. Jackson repeatedly sobbed he was sorry for what he did and asked for forgiveness. Finally, he asked to rest during the lunch hour.

Curtis came back early in the afternoon to pin down some details. This time Jackson seemed spent and reticent. He had not slept for over a day. Jackson wanted to rest. With careful coaxing, Curtis asked Jackson if he wanted to pray with him about forgiveness. He guided Jackson to his knees and prayed a bit of the Our Father, emphasizing “forgive us our trespasses,” and then asked questions about additional facts surrounding the crime. With sobbing answers Jackson slumped on his knees, responded, and filled in details. Curtis extracted information from a halting Jackson as Curtis reminded him about the power of religious forgiveness.

The District Attorney’s capital punishment committee reviewed the case and found it easily met the criteria for the death penalty, special circumstances of murder during the course of a rape, with a heinous criminal history. The case was assigned to Assistant District Attorney Charles Bradley, an experienced sexual assault, death penalty prosecutor with a no-nonsense attitude. He had obtained death verdicts in both capital cases he previously tried.

The Public Defender’s office was abuzz about who would handle the problematic defense of Jackson. Because of the gravity of the case and the distinct possibility of the death penalty being imposed, Assistant Public Defender Michael Lopez took it upon himself to shoulder the case and asked Karen Lawler to be his second chair. Lawler was one of the most promising younger lawyers in the office, noted for her tenacity, hard work, and jury appeal. Lopez had defended several death penalty cases, but none with the dire history presented by Jackson.

Counsel agreed the case could be assigned for all purposes to Judge Raymond Carlton in Department 47 of the Bray Building. Judge Carlton, now close to retirement, had presided over ten death penalty cases, with two resulting in death sentences. With his self-assured manner and thorough knowledge of capital cases, he kept control of proceedings with a rein not too firm that allowed counsel to be zealous advocates.

Karen Lawler filed a detailed motion to suppress Jackson’s statements to investigator Curtis on due process grounds, asserting Jackson did not understand his rights, they were the product of overly coercive questioning, and in a setting and manner that unfairly coerced Jackson’s will. Judge Carlton viewed the videotapes, listened to defense counsel’s impassioned argument, and ruled that the first interrogation by Curtis was admissible, but not the second in the afternoon with its appeal to religion, and set forth reasons for his decision, citing recent cases and what he saw on the videotape. Losing part of the motion produced an unperceived silver lining for the defense that became clearer during trial.

During the following months, Judge Carlton heard a number of pretrial motions, ruled on disclosure of witnesses, resolved discovery disputes, and finalized the lengthy jury questionnaire that was a composite of what the prosecution and defense proposed. The questionnaire asked each prospective juror personal questions about their work, family, involvement with the justice system, and their experiences and attitudes concerning issues that would come up in the trial. It particularly probed a juror’s willingness to keep an open mind about voting for or against death as a punishment based on the evidence despite one’s personal beliefs. It also focused on a juror’s willingness to follow the instructions on the law given by the judge during the proceedings.

Because of the nature of the case and because each side was entitled to 20 peremptory challenges, 300 jurors were summoned. Judge Carlton explained to the prospective jurors that the jury questioning process was called “voir dire,” which means to speak the truth, under oath about one’s qualifications to serve. Lopez and Lawler knew this was the critical phase of the trial. The prosecution’s evidence for the guilt phase and the penalty phase held no surprises. The guiding jury instructions for death penalty cases were well established. But it was crucial for the defense to select jurors who were open to life in prison as punishment instead of death, jurors who valued the defendant’s genuine remorse, jurors who would assign extraordinary mitigating weight to defendant’s remorse such that it could outweigh the multitude of aggravating factors supporting death as punishment. CALCRIM 766 would instruct each juror to assign whatever moral or sympathetic value the juror would find appropriate to aggravating factors supporting death or mitigating factors supporting life without possibility of parole. To return a judgment of death, the jury had to find the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances and also were so substantial in comparison that a sentence of death was justified. A juror could give a mitigating factor whatever weight he or she believed appropriate.

Counsel spent five days in jury selection, culminating in a jury of eight women, one Latina, and four men, one African American, and four alternates, winnowed after the prosecution exercised 12 peremptory challenges and the defense nine. Between the answers from an exhaustive jury questionnaire and Lopez’ probing questions about personal feelings concerning the death penalty, a rigid belief in the principle of an eye for an eye, and how life in prison could be a just punishment, the defense was satisfied it had an open minded jury that was not predisposed to a death sentence in a case that clearly seemed to call for it. From a side seat in Department 47, a defense jury selection psychologist also watched the jurors’ facial expressions, demeanor, and evaluated the content of their answers. She quietly advised defense counsel during recesses on her findings that were factored into excusing jurors. Defense counsel knew the case essentially ended with selection of this jury who hopefully “spoke the truth” about their feelings about capital punishment.

The guilt phase of the trial went as expected. Prosecutor Bradley confidently called witnesses who testified about the crime scene, the arrest of Jackson, autopsy findings, and the determined investigation. Joanne Dirkson, wearing double helix shaped earrings, testified about the DNA match and the extraordinarily high statistical probability that the semen stain came from the defendant. Cross examination scarcely blunted the expert testimony.

Bradley felt Curtis’s video recording of Jackson was his piece de resistance. The jurors intently watched the prosecution’s video as Ralph Jackson struggled, sobbed and staggered through his interrogation while continually asking for forgiveness, as he all but admitted the special circumstances of murder during the commission of a rape.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on the special circumstances charge after deliberating only two hours.

Trial on the penalty phase resumed three days later, giving Lopez and Lawler time to refine their defense. Prosecutor Bradley put on aggravating evidence of the extensive criminal history of Ralph Jackson, previous attempted and successful sexual assaults, and emphasized the circumstances of the brutal murder of Edna Mae Washington, a crime committed while on parole for another violent sexual offense. Bradley used the evidence of overwhelming aggravating circumstances as a powerful closing argument for the only punishment that could satisfy a community’s sense of justice for a horrendous crime – death.

Karen Lawler called a highly regarded, retired warden from San Quentin Prison who testified about the harsh reality of imprisonment, the structured environment where Jackson would recall daily the evil of his actions, and experience the lack of any meaningful social interaction. The testimony would be used later to argue that under the law the jury must assume that life without possibility of parole would indeed be carried out, without any hope of release from a dark existence.

Lawler also presented witnesses regarding Jackson’s parentless youth, repeatedly moving from foster home to foster home without any moral guidance, and his dropping out of school to live alone. She later explained this evidence was not an excuse for depraved behavior but provided a small insight into defendant’s lack of a moral compass.

Finally, Michael Lopez replayed portions of his client’s admissions in which Jackson remorsefully begged for forgiveness, that Lopez argued was akin to a confession seeking God’s forgiveness for his sins. And so the ruling allowing the partial use of defendant’s interrogation statements proved to be a slender silver lining for a desperate defense.

In closing argument, Lopez reviewed the mitigating evidence with special emphasis on his client’s genuine remorse, an uncontrived remorse elicited by one of the district attorney’s most skillful investigators. As if staring down a life-threatening precipice, Michael Lopez looked into each juror’s eyes and tried to deliver a life-saving summation of why Ralph Jackson’s tortured remorse was sufficient for a verdict of life in a maximum security prison. He reminded the jury Judge Carlson’s instructions would allow each of them to consider sympathy for the defendant as a mitigating factor when weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The concept of sympathy, he argued, involved each juror’s understanding Ralph Jackson’s character, and then imposing a punishment appropriate to him.

The jury deliberated four days over the penalty and returned the unexpected verdict of life without possibility of parole. Afterwards, the foreperson explained the conflicted jury arrived at a bitterly fought consensus that allowing Ralph Jackson to live with his anguish and guilt, removed from civilized society in prison, provided long term retribution for a terrible crime that could never be adequately punished. The jury reasoned death provided instant punishment. But life in prison provided years of soul searching torment, a perpetual death knell. Judge Carlton did not disagree with the jury’s rationale, although he felt the crime was as unforgiveable and horrible as those in the two prior trials that resulted in capital punishment.

In a reflective mood, the judge wondered if the same god of justice that uncovered the perpetrator also had a hand in deciding the punishment Ralph Jackson would endure the rest of his life. He recalled the words of former New York Police Commissioner and felon Bernie Kerik, “Going to prison is like dying with your eyes open.”

Note: For other Judge Carlton stories, search “Stories from the Bray Building,” in the Contra Costa Lawyer Magazine online site.