US court upholds death sentence for Tongan inmate on death row

    The California Supreme Court on Friday upheld a death sentence in a murder case committed by a Tongan prisoner 25 years ago.

    Tupou Toe Mataele was convicted for shooting death of a friend and the attempted murder of his friend’s roommate.

    The decision came after the protest of two justices that the trial judge prejudicially erred in disallowing testimony at the penalty phase of an eyewitness who recalls the shooter as being slim, which fits the description of the codefendant, while the appellant weighs in excess of 300 pounds.

    Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said that Orange Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler did err in barring the testimony of the witness, Matthew Towne, who could not be located by the defense to testify at the guilt phase but was available to tell what he saw at the second phase where jurors were asked by the prosecution to recommend a sentence of death for defendant Tupoutoe Mataele.

    However, she declared, the error was harmless, noting that another eyewitness testified as to poor lighting conditions. The chief justice wrote:

    “[W]e can assume that Towne would have testified that for a few seconds, and from across a dark parking lot in the middle of the night, he saw a shooter of a thin or medium build with black skin wearing a cap.”

    She declared that “this evidence pales in comparison to the evidence at the guilt phase, properly considered at the penalty phase as circumstances of the case, establishing defendant’s guilt.”

    Towne’s statements to police were properly excluded as hearsay at the guilt phase, she said.

    Justice Goodwin H. Liu wrote a concurring and dissenting opinion, joined in by Justice Leondra Kruger. He maintained:

    “…The erroneous exclusion of Towne’s testimony can be found harmless only if there is no reasonable possibility that absent the error, the balance of aggravating and mitigating factors, including lingering doubt, would have led one or more jurors to vote for life imprisonment without parole instead of death. Although my colleagues are confident there is no such possibility, I am not. Given the circumstances of this capital sentencing trial, it is hard to think of evidence more potentially consequential than eyewitness testimony identifying someone other than the defendant as the actual killer. It is reasonably possible that one or more jurors would not have been certain beyond all possible doubt that Mataele was the shooter and, on that basis, would have refrained from voting for death.”

    In addition to imposing a death sentence for murder, the court sentenced Mataele to life imprisonment plus nine years on his conviction for attempted murder count, with that sentence taking into account the firearm enhancements and a prior serious felony conviction.

    50-year-old Mataele was waiting for a “court action” and the date on which he is to be executed by lethal injection.

    Mataele, who had previously pleaded with the judge to “have mercy on me” was on death row for murder and attempted murder in a case which prosecutors said stemmed from a falling out from an identity-theft conspiracy.

    Mataele was convicted for the shooting death of Danell Johnson on Nov. 12, 1997, and the attempted murder of John Matsubayashi, Johnson’s roommate.

    The court was told Mataele and co-defendant Minh Nghia Lee and the two victims were at one time connected in a conspiracy to steal identities and commit bank fraud. But, prosecutors said, the group had a falling out.

    Mataele and Lee lured Johnson outside his Anaheim apartment and shot him in the head, the court was reportedly told.

    Lee was convicted of first- degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in 2005 while a third defendant, James Chung, was serving a life term without parole.

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