SAN FRANCISCO — A three-justice panel heard oral arguments Tuesday in the appeals of the two men who were convicted of murder charges for the 2008 shooting death of Fairfield City Councilman Matt Garcia.
Attorneys for Henry D. Williams and Gene A. Combs previously submitted lengthy written briefs detailing why their clients deserved to have their convictions overturned and their life sentences thrown out.
Williams and Combs were driving from a Cordelia drug dealer’s home on the night of Sept. 1, 2008, after Combs was stiffed by the dealer over a $50 methamphetamine deal. Garcia drove past them and parked at a nearby home to visit a friend. Williams mistook Garcia for the dealer, and with a gun provided by Combs, fired eight shots toward Garcia, striking him fatally once in the back of the head.
In separate jury trials in 2010, Williams and Combs were found guilty. Williams was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. Combs got 15 years to life in prison.
The attorneys for Williams and Combs claimed both men were unfairly prejudiced by pretrial publicity, that Judge Robert Bowers mistakenly allowed testimony about Combs’ statements to authorities after his arrest and that the prosecutor committed misconduct.
The justices aggressively quizzed the appellate lawyers, interrupting them repeatedly with remarks or questions that at times seemed to bolster points raised by a lawyer with the state Attorney General’s Office, who objected to the idea that either killer deserved a new trial.
Neither Williams nor Combs was at the hearing. Garcia’s family attended the hearing.
Justices asked both appellate lawyers to limit their comments to their strongest issues.
Combs’ lawyer focused most of his attention on trying to dispel the idea that Combs aided and abetted in the killing and that the killing was a likely possible consequence. He said Combs may have helped Williams try to extort the drug dealer, but Williams acted entirely on his own a few minutes later in shooting Garcia and said Combs had no idea Williams was toting a gun.
The deputy attorney general countered the claim that Combs did not know about Williams’ gun, quoting from Combs’ statement to an investigator in which he admitted he saw Williams with the gun at the drug dealer’s home.
Williams’ appellate lawyer focused largely on what Combs told the drug dealer in a phone call the day after the shooting.
“Those bullets were meant for you,” Combs said.
Jurors never should have learned about Combs’ remark, because Williams’ attorney had no way to cross-examine Combs about the remark, Williams’ appellate attorney said. Justices pointed out that Williams’ trial attorney wanted jurors to know of the remark because the defense case was that Combs was the real killer.
Justices reminded Williams’ appeals lawyer about the self-incriminating statements Williams made after the murder, including telling one friend he had “unloaded a clip on somebody” and “I shot me a councilman.”
Justices announced no decisions at the end of the hearings. They typically do not issues rulings on appeals until a few months after oral arguments.
Justices previously deferred considering a separate request made by Williams to have his conviction and prison sentence thrown out in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
In the petition, Williams claims that during his trial, his wife had spent time with a juror in the trial, who offered to barter his vote for sexual favors. He claimed that his wife did not say anything about her claims until after her husband’s conviction because she was embarrassed and did not think anyone would believe her.
The juror was previously quizzed about the accusation. He acknowledged being approached briefly during a break in the trial by a woman he did not know, but he denied that anything untoward happened.
Garcia, 22, was one of the youngest elected officials in the state. Elected to office in 2007 at 21, he was the youngest councilman in Fairfield history.
Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.