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William Jennings CHOYCE





Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Serial rapist
Number of victims: 3
Date of murder: April 3, 1988 / July 2/August 11, 1997
Date of birth: 1954
Victim profile: Victoria Bell / Lawanda Beck / Gwendolyn Lee
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: San Joaquin County, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on December 5, 2008

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Death for Choyce

Stockton man headed to San Quentin for S.J., Bay Area killings

By Scott Smith -

December 15, 2008

STOCKTON - A San Joaquin County Superior Court judge on Monday affirmed a jury's decision to send convicted serial killer William Jennings Choyce to California's crowded death row.

The words condemning 54-year-old Choyce to die seemed hard for Judge Linda L. Lofthus to utter. She paused on each critical word as if struggling to maintain her composure.

"Mr. Choyce shall be put to death," she said, "within the walls of California State Prison San Quentin in the manner prescribed by law upon a date to be fixed by this court in a warrant of execution." This was the first capital case for Lofthus.

Lofthus repeated the sentence for each of the three women Choyce - a family man and trash hauler from Stockton - raped and murdered more than a decade ago. A DNA hit linked Choyce to the crimes while he was in prison for a previous rape conviction.

At San Quentin, Choyce will live alone in a 4-by-9-foot cell alongside about a dozen other condemned inmates from San Joaquin County. A total of 677 inmates there await execution in California.

It is possible Choyce will live out his life on death row. The average length of stay for inmates is about 17 years. More inmates die from suicide and natural causes than executions. The appellate process takes years.

All California executions have been on hold for nearly two years since condemned Stockton man Michael Angelo Morales argued that the state's use of lethal injection may violate his protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

On Monday, Choyce was sentenced for killing Victoria Bell of Oakland and two Stockton women, Gwendolyn Lee and Lawanda Beck. Choyce was raised in Oakland.

According to trial testimony, the three victims were working as prostitutes when Choyce picked them up.

He bound their hands and feet and raped them at gunpoint before shooting them execution style in the head and dumping their bodies.

Lofthus also sentenced Choyce to 81 years and four months to life for kidnapping and raping another Stockton woman at gunpoint before setting her free. She testified against him, saying he was going to kill her.

During the sentencing hearing, Choyce sat quietly between his two attorneys and made no statements. He wore red jailhouse garb, and a gray beard he had grown since his trial.

His attorneys made one last pitch to save Choyce's life, telling the judge there was also a good side to his personality as a father and that executing him would be yet another killing, amounting to a sin.

In trial, the defense had argued that Choyce grew up under an abusive mother, who warped Choyce into a grown man with sexual disorders that he took out on the women.

"It's just got to stop somewhere," San Joaquin County Deputy Public Defender William Fattarsi told Lofthus, who denied all arguments for a new trial or lesser sentence.

Courtroom bailiffs outnumbered those attending the hearing. Nobody spoke on Choyce's behalf aside from his attorneys. San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa said the death penalty was too good for Choyce.

"I wish there were something beyond it," Testa said.

Valerie Lee, the sister of victim Gwendolyn Lee, said in court that she felt no happiness or sadness, but she continues to wonder why Choyce chose to kill her sister.

"I think you are getting what you deserve - death," Valerie Lee said.

After the judge left the stand, a bailiff took Choyce's fingerprints. Attorney Lorna Patton Brown exchanged a few hushed words with him. She put her business card in the breast pocket of his shirt and hugged him before bailiffs escorted him out.


Jurors sentence serial killer to death

With executions on hold, penalty largely symbolic

By Alex Breitler -

September 19, 2008

STOCKTON - Serial killer William Jennings Choyce was sentenced to death Thursday for three murders that a prosecutor outside court referred to as "Ted Bundy-type behavior."

Choyce, a 54-year-old trash hauler, had no visible reaction as the 12 jurors individually confirmed their decisions with a single word: "Yes."

The jury had already found Choyce guilty in the 1997 rapes and murders of Stockton women Lawanda Beck and Gwendolyn Lee, as well as the 1988 murder of Victoria Bell of Oakland.

They deliberated for about one full day before handing down the death sentence.

Choyce now joins the more than 670 condemned inmates on California's death row.

"No one is celebrating this verdict whatsoever," San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa said after court adjourned. "No one is uncorking champagne. This was tragic all around."

Defense attorney William Fattarsi said he was disappointed and declined further comment.

No family members of the victims were present in the largely empty courtroom, but Testa said they were hoping Choyce would receive the ultimate punishment.

Of course, the sentence is at least somewhat symbolic considering the backlog of inmates awaiting execution, he said.

"The irony is that he's never going to get (the death penalty)," Testa said.

But the penalty was deserved, the prosecutor said. "These crimes were off the charts," Testa said. "This was Ted Bundy-type behavior, in my opinion."

Certainly not in number. Bundy, who in the mid-1970s distributed death throughout the United States, ultimately admitted to 30 murders and was executed in Florida in 1989.

But Choyce's killings appeared to similarly be carefully premeditated, Testa said. The killer drove a van with a bed that folded out in back - Testa called it a "rape-mobile" - and said Choyce carried a fanny pack that contained rope and plastic tie strips.

He attacked prostitutes, raping the three victims and shooting them execution-style before dumping their bodies. DNA evidence eventually linked Choyce to the crimes.

Three other women testified during the trial that they were raped at gunpoint but survived.

Defense attorneys said during the penalty phase that Choyce was beaten every day by his mother, and for no reason. His home was "permeated with lies, beatings and sexual infidelities," Oakland attorney Lorna Patton-Brown told the jury earlier this month.

She argued that there was "another side" to Choyce than the bad things he did.

But the jurors on Thursday expressed little visible emotion as they gave their verdict. Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus thanked them for their months of service before they were dismissed. "It's very stressful, what you've just done," she said moments after the death verdict was read. "I'm sure you all realize that. ... Be kind to yourselves when you go home."


Serial killer's penalty phase likely to carry emotional toll

Stockton Record

August 25, 2008

Having already found him guilty of serial murders, a jury deciding the fate of William Jennings Choyce now may get a glimpse into the defendant's childhood and psychological makeup in the second part of his trial.

Choyce, 54, is expected to return to San Joaquin County Superior Court next week when jurors likely will hear emotional testimony from Choyce's relatives and those of his victims.

The battle this time will not be over his guilt or innocence but if his penalty should be life in prison or a cell on California's crowded death row.

Steven Shatz, a University of San Francisco law professor who teaches a death penalty course and is not involved in Choyce's case, said the defense's job this time is to show jurors that "this person is redeemable; there is a spark of humanity in him."

By sharp contrast, the prosecution will argue there is nothing redeemable about Choyce, and he should pay for his crimes with this life.

The jury seated before Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus found earlier this month that between 1988 and 1997, Choyce killed 3 prostitutes - 2 from Stockton and a 3rd woman from Oakland.

He raped a 4th woman with a gun pressed against her head and then set her free. It took less than 2 days for jurors to find him guilty on all counts following a 1-month trial.

Thomas Testa, the San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney prosecuting Choyce, declined an interview for this story. Choyce's lead attorney, San Joaquin County Deputy Public Defender William Fattarsi, also did not respond to requests for comment.

The 2-part death penalty trial that Choyce is in the middle of has long been used, and for good reason, explained Vikram Amar, a law professor at University of California, Davis, School of Law.

Amar said the 1st part of the trial - called the guilt phase - is a time when jurors solely weigh the facts of the case to determine if the defendant committed the crime.

It is important that any emotional testimony not come up until the second part - the so-called penalty phase - so it doesn't cloud the jury's decision-making process. That could cause jurors to convict a defendant on something aside from the facts, Amar said.

"We want to separate the deliberations on the question of death," Amar said. "It underscores how momentous that decision is and how seriously society is taking that decision."

In cases such as this, the defense often calls relatives of the victims to testify about their loss, which can be emotional, Shatz said. Relatives of 2 Stockton women killed said they will testify.

Jurors in the penalty phase likely will learn about Choyce's 2002 rape conviction that sent him to prison for 11 years and other acts of violence, something that would further incriminate him if jurors were to hear about that in the trial's 1st stage, Shatz said.

Choyce's attorneys probably will put the defendant's relatives or others on the stand in an attempt to show his tender side as a loving family man who did good things in life. Psychologists might delve into his childhood to "explain what is otherwise inexplicable," Shatz said.

In the end, even if jurors send Choyce to death row, he will enter a broken system and probably languish there for years, Shatz said. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in April upheld lethal injection as it is used in Kentucky and other states.

In California, however, successful court challenges raised by Stockton's condemned Michael Angelo Morales on other issues have indefinitely blocked further executions. This state has the nation's largest number of deat row inmates, yet it executed 13 inmates in the past 30 years.

"Unless we change something, the odds are strong that this guy (Choyce) is goIng to die before he's executed," said Shatz, who favors abolishing capital punishment because of its high cost and other reasons. "The fact of the matter is nobody would miss it because it's not doing anything."


Exhaustive jury process has critics

800 potential jurors will be screened in trial of Stockton man

By Scott Smith -

May 24, 2008

STOCKTON - William Jennings Choyce, a garbage man from Stockton charged with raping and murdering three prostitutes a decade ago, might not get a lot of sympathy if he ever argues that jury bias tainted his upcoming death penalty trial.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus has begun a rarely used method of selecting jurors in Choyce's case that receives criticism for taking a long time. But its supporters say it weeds out those who have already made up their mind on capital punishment before even coming to court.

Opening statements for the trial of Choyce, 54, aren't expected until mid-July. By then, the judge and attorneys will have culled through 800 potential jurors. Half of them will be called into the courtroom one at a time to answer 15 minutes worth of heart-to-heart questions.

Under the so-called Hovey voir dire, jurors undergo individual questioning without other jurors listening. They're asked to explain things such as their position on capital punishment, religious convictions and if they think a person can blame child abuse for adult behavior.

Questions could even delve into their own experiences as victims of child abuse or rape, or if they've struggled with alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness, explained Angela Backers, a senior prosecutor in Alameda County who is not part of this case.

Backers knows the subject well. She lectures on jury selection nationally and heads a capital litigation committee for the California District Attorneys Association. She said in a phone interview that dark, personal topics are often woven into the fabric of death penalty cases.

"Those are things the attorneys have to know," said Backers, explaining the value of the extended jury selection. "But it's not fair to ask those things in front of 90 other jurors."

Those who don't like the deeply probing jury selection process argue that it takes too much time in California trial courts already bombarded with cases. Backers said it was used in all but one of the seven death penalty cases she prosecuted. These days, it is becoming rare.

Hovey voir dire was established in 1980 and was the standard until 1991, when California voters said it is up to trial court judges to decide if they would individually question jurors or question them in large groups.

Backers said the extended system allows a defense attorney to quickly pick out die-hard death penalty supporters, and it avoids copy-cat answers. Someone adamantly in favor of capital punishment is more likely to admit misgivings if they won't appear weak in front of a large group.

"There are people who are talking theoretically that they could do it," she said of choosing a death sentence. "I'm not talking theoretical. I'm talking about you looking a man in the eye and sending him to die."

In the Choyce case, 20 jurors a day for 20 days are scheduled to be called into Lofthus' courtroom.

One day this week, a bailiff ushered in a potential juror. He walked up to the jury box, sat down and admitted to Lofthus that he was "a little nervous." Lofthus sat at the bench to his right, and Choyce with his two attorneys sat at the large center table next to the prosecutor.

Answering Lofthus, the potential juror said his first reaction to hearing the charges against Choyce was "shock." He believes capital punishment is a deterrent to crime and said that his support of the death penalty is "pretty strong."

Lofthus excused the potential juror, who declined outside of court to give his name for this story.

Another potential juror answered that she believes childhood traumas lead some to do bad as adults although others don't. She couldn't explain why. She also described being raised Catholic and said that for a while she was a Jehovah's Witness. Now, she doesn't ascribe to a religious denomination.

Thomas Testa, the San Joaquin County prosecutor, asked her point-blank if she could vote for the death penalty if she heard all the evidence and found Choyce guilty.

"Can you come back to court and look him in the eye and say, 'Yep, I'm voting for the death penalty?' " Testa asked.

"If I find it is appropriate," she answered. "Yes."

Lofthus asked her to come back at a later date. The woman is not identified in this story because she could become a juror.

Testa outside of court said he thinks a fair jury can be seated even if potential jurors are questioned in a group. At a recent conference he attended for California prosecutors, no others said they were now on cases in which a judge used the longer method, Testa said.

Early in the Choyce case, Testa filed a motion opposing Lofthus' decision to use the extended jury selection method. Hovey voir dire can take longer than it takes to try the case, Testa said. That's why California voters decided to make it optional, Testa said.

While the time it takes can be frustrating, Testa said he can live with it. He credited Lofthus for her thoughtful decision to choose the less-common method.

"She agonized over it," Testa said. "I really have to applaud her for the effort she put into it."



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