FAIRFIELD — A former Vanden High School sports great who has been on death row at San Quentin prison for 24 years had his 1989 conviction and death sentence overturned last week by a federal judge in Sacramento.
Steven E. Crittenden was sentenced to death three years after he helped propel the Vanden Viking boys’ basketball team to a state championship.
Crittenden, now 46, was a freshman on a football scholarship at California State University, Chico, in Butte County when he tortured and slaughtered an elderly couple in their home in early 1987.
Joseph and Katherine Chiapella had both been bound, gagged, beaten and stabbed to death in their Chico home. The day after their killings, Crittenden, who had done yard work for the couple, cashed a $3,000 check signed by Katherine Chiapella.
Before his trial, Crittenden escaped from the Butte County jail and was recaptured after kidnapping a man and forcing him to drive him to Sacramento.
During Crittenden’s trial, Vanden basketball coaches and a former teammate testified about how sportsmanlike, polite and respectful he had been when he played for the Vikings.
In 1994, the California Supreme Court upheld Crittenden’s conviction and the death penalty. In 2000, Crittenden’s lawyers got a federal judge to order a hearing to review issues about the trial, including claims a potential juror was booted from the jury panel because of her race.
Before the hearing and more than 14 years after the jury trial, the prosecutor, Gerald E. Flanagan, said he had no memory of why he excused the black woman on the jury panel. Crittenden is also black.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the federal district court turned down all of Crittenden’s legal claims. His lawyers appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments six years ago in 2007 in Crittenden’s appeal.
More than two years ago, Crittenden’s lawyers filed their final motions in the appeal. U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller sided with Crittenden’s lawyers in a ruling issued Sept. 30.
“. . . (A)t the time of Flanagan’s rating of jurors after voir dire and the time of his actually striking (the juror), Flanagan was motivated, consciously or unconsciously, in substantial part by race,” Mueller wrote.
Flanagan claimed he removed the juror from the jury panel because of her negative views on the death penalty.
Mueller said the case supporting the notion the prosecutor’s motivation for removing the juror was racial was wholly circumstantial. Mueller pointed to a checklist rating used by Flanagan during jury selection reflecting that he gave the juror a low score while giving another opponent of the death penalty a higher score. Flanagan also used the term “gas chamber” almost only with the black potential juror, a term Mueller described as a “charged descriptor.” Mueller also pointed to a previous trial before Crittenden’s in which Flanagan had also excused another black juror during jury selection.
Mueller gave state law enforcement authorities 60 days to either release Crittenden from prison or to file new charges against him.
Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsay told the Sacramento Bee that he received assurances last week from the state Attorney General’s Office that they will challenge Mueller’s ruling with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.