No Death Penalty for Accused Killer

Case doesn’t meet any of the state standards for capital
Gilroy – David Vincent Reyes could face a lengthy prison sentence, but he won’t be executed, said assistant district attorney David Tomkins. Under California state law, a crime must meet at least one of 22 specific requirements to merit a death sentence. None applied to Franca Barsi’s murder, Tomkins said.

That means that the maximum sentence meted to Reyes, if he’s convicted, will be “25 to life”: a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years, said Tomkins.

Last month, Reyes confessed to killing his girlfriend, former Garlic Queen Franca Barsi, after a heated argument in Barsi’s apartment, according to Detective Mitch Madruga. Shocked friends recalled a vivacious woman, blessed with an abundance of talents. Barsi’s high school yearbook reads like a resume: swimming, basketball, colorguard, songleader, junior homecoming princess, speech club and a handful of plays. Her death leaves her 10-year-old son Andrew motherless, her mother, stepfather and sister bereft.

“I’d rather see him suffer than give him a swift death,” said Lauretta Avina, Barsi’s sister. She has mixed feelings about the death penalty, for Reyes or for anyone. “His death wouldn’t bring my sister back.”

Under California’s “Three Strikes” law, Reyes has a strike prior for his 1985 conviction of assault with intent to commit rape, said Tomkins. A strike prior doubles the possible penalties for any crime of which Reyes is convicted. Reyes has also been arrested twice for battery, both times against women. When Barsi was murdered, two other warrants had been issued for Reyes’ arrest: one for armed robbery, and one for failing to register as a sex offender.

The death penalty is an option when at least one of 22 “special circumstances” are charged, according to California state law. If a peace officer, firefighter, judge or elected official is murdered to prevent “the performance of the victim’s official duties,” for instance, the killer could face death. Other “special circumstances” include murder for financial gain, the use of explosives or poisons, torturing a victim, hate-motivated murder based on race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin, or murdering in the course of robbery, kidnapping or rape.

“Deciding on death is not a snap decision,” said Karyn Sinunu, a candidate for Santa Clara County District Attorney. In Reyes’ case, none of the 22 special circumstances applied. “If the charging deputy looked at all the factors and made the decision, it’s not for me to second-guess.”

Her opponent, Judge Dolores Carr, agreed. The existing list of “special circumstances” is very broad, she said.

But “the law gives the DA broad discretion to determine whether a particular murder should be filed as a capital case,” she added. “As district attorney, after consideration of all the information possible, I’d decide whether they had forfeited their right to live.”

Even when a murder is charged with “special circumstances,” attorneys review the case at length to decide if the ultimate price should be paid. If a firefighter was murdered, for example, the assistant district attorney in charge of homicide would then ask the chief assistant to convene a committee of 12 prosecutors. Eight are “core members,” said Sinunu, while four are specialists, brought in for specific kinds of crimes, such as white-collar crime or elder abuse. A prosecutor and a defense attorney present the facts of the crime, as well as mitigating factors such as mental illness, before the committee makes a recommendation to the district attorney. The whole process – from first meeting to final recommendation – can take as long as eight months, said Sinunu.

The DA then decides whether to ask the jury for death.

“Over the last 10 years, the district attorney’s office has been very careful in making those decisions,” Carr said. “I’d follow that use of discretion.”

Both Carr and Sinunu said they support the death penalty in appropriate cases, though they declined to comment on Reyes’ case. Sinunu added that she, unlike Carr, has tried a “special circumstances” murder case, and has also chaired the death penalty committee in the district attorney’s office. Carr has never sat on the committee.

That’s true, said Carr, “but one needs to look at whether experience has been successful experience … The people who know criminal justice best support me, and are very comfortable with my range of experience.”

Plus, Carr added, she’s sat as a judge on cases brought by the district attorney, which she said Sinunu hasn’t done.

Sinunu also criticized the death penalty system more broadly, arguing that “our current system … in the state of California is broken.” She pointed to 25-year waits on death row while “victims suffer and a lot of money goes into litigation. As of July 1, there were 657 California prisoners waiting for execution, according to an NAACP Legal Defense Fund report.

“There’s a shortage of appellate attorneys that are causing the slowdown,” Sinunu said.

But if Reyes faces a long prison stay, Avina said she won’t be disappointed. Death is too good an end, she said, for the man who confessed to murdering her sister.

“However many years he gets in prison,” she said, “I hope that he suffers, as we are suffering.”