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The Trial

Bernard Lee Hamilton had a hard time getting along with his attorneys. The published opinion in one of Hamilton’s subsequent appeals summarized his attorney troubles as follows:

At arraignment on July 12, 1979, Patrick O’Connor was appointed to represent defendant. On September 25, 1979, on defendant’s motion O’Connor was relieved on the ground of incompatibility, and Jerome Wallingford was appointed in his place. On November 7, 1979, dissatisfied with the representation that Wallingford was providing, defendant again made a motion to relieve counsel; Wallingford joined in the motion; the court, however, denied the request. On November 26, 1979, apparently on defendant’s motion Wallingford was relieved and Thomas Ryan and Vivian Camberg were appointed in his place. On May 1, 1980, defendant filed a motion requesting that the court relieve Ryan and Camberg and permit him to represent himself. At a hearing on May 9, 1980, defendant withdrew his motion and made a new motion requesting that the court appoint him as co-counsel; the court granted this request. On May 20, 1980, defendant, complaining of their performance, again moved to have Ryan and Camberg relieved and to be permitted to represent himself. Finding inter alia that defendant did not have “a legitimate objection, but [was] only grasping at anything he can think of to delay the proceedings,” the court denied the motion.

Even after the trial began on October 2, 1980, Hamilton’s unhappiness with his attorneys continued. He filed motions on October 14, November 3, November 17, and December 8 seeking to fire his attorneys so he could represent himself. On December 9, 10, 12, and 15, he made various additional complaints about his attorneys’ performance. After the jury returned its guilty verdict on January 6, 1981, Hamilton again requested the court relieve counsel and allow him to represent himself. The court rejected all his motions and complaints.

Some of Hamilton’s unhappiness may have stemmed from the fact that, at his attorneys’ request, he was shackled during the trial. In another appeal, Hamilton claimed the shackling denied him due process because it deprived him of the presumption of innocence. Once again, an appellate court summarized the situation:

Hamilton was originally placed in restraints prior to trial at the request of his counsel. The request was based upon Hamilton’s sexual assault on counsel’s assistant and a physical assault on counsel himself. At Hamilton’s request, the shackles were removed, and the trial began with Hamilton in a restrictive leg brace under his trousers. At that point, Hamilton was on notice that future shackling depended upon Hamilton’s conduct both in and out of court.

The leg iron was subsequently removed after Hamilton complained of pain. The trial court…concluded that Hamilton should have a chance to start trial without restraints.

The episode that gave rise to further restraint was a verbal assault and violent behavior exhibited toward deputies who were to bring Hamilton from his cell to the courtroom on the third day after jury selection commenced. After a hearing that morning, the trial court found a pattern of increased agitation on the part of Hamilton and was concerned that he was “on the edge of losing control of himself at any time.”…

Hamilton was then placed in handcuffs attached to a chain around his waist. He had a chain placed around his legs. Although Hamilton was seated during trial, the jury was aware of the shackles because he took the stand to testify.

Frank Sexton remembered Hamilton’s conduct during trial. “The deputy who was bringing him in to the trial was a friend of my son’s,” Sexton said. “Hamilton was spitting on the deputy. A while later, the deputy and my son were out having a beer, and my son said, ‘Why didn’t you blend him into the carpet?’ And you know what the deputy said? He said, ‘I didn’t want to screw up your dad’s case.’ ”

He didn’t. After a two-and-a-half-month trial, the jury found Bernard Lee Hamilton guilty of murdering Eleanore Buchanan. During the trial, Hamilton testified that he had found the Buchanans’ van parked on a street in Linda Vista with the keys in the ignition. He said he had never seen Eleanore Buchanan alive or dead. He said he had told officers the story about driving cross-country with Spider and Fran because he didn’t want to be prosecuted for stealing the van.

Frank Sexton cross-examined Hamilton for about a day. “It was good,” Sexton remembered. Rifling through large black binders in his Clairemont apartment, Sexton reviewed page after page of trial notes. Reading words from long ago, Sexton recalled a line of questioning about the letter Hamilton wrote to Terry Buchanan. “ ‘So, in other words, there was another lie in that letter?’ ‘Yes, there was another lie.’ ” Sexton skipped ahead. “Here’s another one. ‘So you didn’t have any time to go to Shreveport, Louisiana, and drop off Spider and Fran?’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ ‘That was another lie, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes, it was.’ ”

After the penalty phase, the jury returned a verdict of death on February 2, 1981. On March 2, 1981, Judge Franklin B. Orfield affirmed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Bernard Lee Hamilton to death by lethal injection.

The Appeals

To say Bernard Lee Hamilton has pursued the appellate process vigorously would be a tremendous understatement. On his first round of appeals, the California Supreme Court in 1985 affirmed his conviction as to guilt but reversed his death sentence. Frank Sexton laughed ruefully when he remembered that reversal. “Rose Bird said that I hadn’t proven intent to kill,” Sexton said. “He only cut her head off. I suppose she could have throbbed around for a while.” Indeed, the California Supreme Court under then Chief Justice Rose Bird set aside the special circumstance finding necessary for a death sentence because the lower court failed to instruct the jury that it must find intent to kill in the felony-murder special circumstance.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the California Supreme Court’s decision reversing the death sentence and sent the case back to the California Supreme Court to reconsider in light of new U.S. Supreme Court case law. Two years later, the California Supreme Court upheld the special circumstance finding and the death sentence.

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