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January 4, 2012     Feather River Bulletin
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January 4, 2012
 

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Feather River Bulletin Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012 7A Lassen won't seek death penalty for murder suspects Ruth Ellis Staff Writer rellis@lassennews.com Lassen County District At- torney Bob Burns announced he will not be seeking the death penalty against two people who are being held on murder charges Burns made the announce- ment last month when Joan- na Lynne McElrath and Robin Glen James appeared in Lassen Superior Court to enter a plea on charges of the alleged premeditated murder of off-duty Su- sanville City Police Officer Robert 3ames McElrath, who was Joanna McElrath's es- tranged husband. James was her alleged boyfriend at the time of Robert McElrath's death. A press release from Burns said while the decision to not seek the death penalty was exclusively his to make, it was made in consultation and agreement with the McElrath family, Lassen County Sheriff Dean Grow- don, whose agency investi- gated the case, Police Chief Jeff Atkinson, of the Su- sanville Police Department where the victim was em- ployed, and some of Robert McElrath's coworkers. According to the press re- lease, McElrath and James re- main subject to life in prison without the possibility of pa- role. The press release said the principal reason for not seeking the death penalty in- cluded the practical and sober acknowledgement that getting a death sentence im- posed against a woman is unlikely at best. There are only 16 women on death row in all of California. More un- likely was the proposition well as the district attorney's decision. He also commented on the appeals process in a death penalty sentence and used Dennis Ervine as an example. Ervine was charged with the death of LCSO deputy Larry Griffith whoin he 'allegedly shot from a window.in his home when Griffith and his partner responded to a domes- tic violence report in Raven- that a death sentence would dale in 1995. actually be carried out. The last female execution in Cali- fornia occurred 51 years ago, in 1961. The release said, "The McElraths prefer closure, not necessarily for themselves but for their grandchildren, the four that Joanna McE1- rath's murderous plan left behind." Robert and Joanna McE1- rath were married approxi- mately 10 years and have four children, two from a previous marriage of Joanna McElrath and whom Robert McElrath had adopted. Regarding the announce- ment that the death penalty would not be pursued, Atkin- son said the decJ.sion truly rests with Robert McElrath's family, because they are the one.s most impacted by his death. If not pursuing the death penalty is their choice, Atkin. son said he supports that, as Atkinson said, "He's still alive 16 years after he killed Larry. That's just wrong." McElrath and James were arrested Jan. 6, 2011, after law enforcement agencies con- ducted an almost weeklong investigation into Robert McElrath's death. His body was found by the riverbank near the railroad trestle by Devil's Corral the morning of Jan. 2. It has been alleged that dur- ing the evening of Jan. 1, Joanna McElrath crushed up prescription narcotic medica- tion and put it in Robert McEIrath's alcoholic drink without his knowledge. Later, she ground up more medica- tion, put it in a drink and told him it was aspirin. When Robert McElrath was inco- herent, she allegedly drove him to the old vehicular bridge near Devil's Corral where James met them. It was alleged James then used McElrath's duty weapon to shoot him in the face Joanna McElrath and James then left the scene and allegedly came back later to dump Robert McElrath's body over the bridge. After a five-day prelimi- nary hearing in July, Lassen County Superior Court Judge Michelle Verderosa deter- mined there was enough evi- dence to proceed. On Dec. 20, Joanna McE1- rath pleaded not guilty to charges of premeditated mur- der and conspiracy, as well as special allegations of lying in wait, the murder being com- mitted for financial gain and that James used a handgun resulting in Robert McE1- rath's death. Prior to Burns' announce- ment that he would not be seeking the death penalty, James' attorney, Larry Barnes, requested a plea not be entered yet for the defen- dant and the request re- mained even after the change in the case. James and Joanna McE1- rath remain in custody with- out bail. They are scheduled to appear in court for a cast status review at 11 a.m. Feb. 6. Visiting Judge John T. Ball also reviewed subpoenas from Nevada and Placer counties, Roseville and the California Department of Corrections and allowed them to be given to the de- fense counsel. Bud Landreth, of Salinas County, is representing Joanna McElrath and Lau- reen Bethards is her Keenan counsel, which is used in potential death penalty Cases. Dave Headley is working with Barnes on James' case. Landreth and Barnes both requested the Keenan coun- sels remain on the case for the time being Ball approved their requests: After Burns made his an- nouncement he would not be seeking the death penalty, Lassen County Sheriff Dean Growdon issued a written statement saying he sup- ports the decision Burns made. He said as the case moves forward through the justice system, there are many criti- cal decisions that have to be made, including the district attorney not seeking the death penalty for Joanna McElrath and James: The reasons he said he sup- ports the decision are, "The most important people associ- ated with this case at this time are the family of Robert McElrath. The family has de- cided that they do not wish to pursue the death penalty. I have a great deal of respect for their wishes and therefore support them. '' He also said, "Each por- tion of the criminal justice system has an area of re- sponsibility within that sys- tem. The district attorney has the final authority in de- ciding which crimes get charged within Lassen County. I respect his posi- tion in our criminal justice system and as such I respect his position related to this case as I would expect him to respect the role of my of- fice." Growdon said people talked with him afterward and as- sumed he didn't support pur- suing the death penalty due to the complications it Ioses and the lengthy appeals process associated with it. "I do support the death penalty and feel that it should be pursued regardless of the legal complication when war- ranted by the facts of the case," he said. He said the murder of Robert McElrath has caused a great deal of heartache for his family, the community and lo- cal law enforcement profes- sionals. The law enforcement personnel who worked the case did an exemplary job, and their efforts will never be forgotten. Growdon said, "The men and women in my office will continue in their efforts to see that justice is served in this case." Judicial Council announces cc s00-q:utting measures for construction The Judicial Council last month endorsed several cost- cutting measures for court construction while affirming its commitment to much- needed improvements in the judicial branch's statewide in- frastructure. The council approved rec- ommendations from the Court Facilities Working Group to cancel two construc- tion projects in small counties and to seek cost-savings on others. , :,,, :. The working group recom- mended that the new Plumas County courthouse project in Quincy continue with the site acquisition process, with property purchase and pre- liminary plans expected in the 2012-13 fiscal year. The 25-member working group was appointed by the chief justice in July 2011 to oversee the judicial branch program and is headed up by Administrative Presiding Justice Brad R. Hill of the Court of Appeal, 5th Appellate District. "I'm pleased with the Judi- cial Council's endorsement of our recommendations," said Hill. "In light of the state's fis- cal crisis and the importance of our infrastructure needs, our working group had to put in a lot of work in a short pe- riod of time. Our work will be ongoing, but what the council did today and what we've ac- complished so far demon- strates the importance not on- ly of judicial oversight but of having a statewide approach to these issues. Our working group represents different ar- eas of the state, as well as a cross section of expertise." Court construction actions The council: --Canceled two courthouse projects -- in Alpine and Sier- caseloads. The council direct- ed staff to determine how im- provement needs in these two courts could be addressed in future years as facility modi- fications, as funding is avail- able. Canceling these two pro- jects will save more than $50 million. --Endorsed a plan for pro- ceeding with most courthouse projects funded under Senate Bill 1407. The plan enables 33 projects to proceed without delay this fiscal year, while six projects will be delayed by a few months, until the begin- ning of the next fiscal year, when revenue collected in the courts should again be avail- able in the account that funds courthouse construction. --Agreed to reduce budgets for all remaining SB 1407 pro- jects by 4 percent and cut a program-wide contingency, resulting in over $160 million in savings. Each project's con- struction budget will be cut by 2 percent, with another 2 percent cut reflecting savings to be achieved by implement- ing an owner-controlled in- surance program. The pro- gram-wide contingency amount will be reduced from 4.6 to 3 percent of the total $5 billion program. During the presentation to the council, Hill also an- nounced formation of a court- house cost reduction subcom- mittee, to be chaired by Jus- tice Jeffrey Johnson, associ- ate justice of the Court of Ap- peal, 2nd Appellate District, in Los Angeles. The subcom- mittee will review all new courthouse projects for ways to further reduce costs with- out compromising safety or security. "We have already begun hearing suggestions from courts slated to get new court- houses on how to reduce the current fiscal climate," John- son said. "We look forward to working creatively with the courts and the AOC to take a fresh look at these projects for further savings." Courthouse maintenance actions The council heard a presen- tation on the dire state of funding for courthouse re- pairs and maintenance by Judges David Edwin Power and William F. Highberger, the chair and vice-chair of the Trial Court Facility Modifica- tion Working Group, which oversees repair funding deci- sions. Repair funding was cut 40 percent this fiscal year, to $30 million, to cover repair needs in more than 500 buildings, with millions of square feet of court facilities statewide. Many buildings suffer from significant deferred mainte- nance -- a legacy of neglect reaching back years before they were transferred to the state. After this presentation, the council directed the AOC to seek additional funding through the Legislature for courthouse operations and maintenance and to pursue legislative measures that would give the judicial branch greater flexibility in allocating funds among.vari- ous facility needs. "We need to keep in mind that 90 percent of court oper- ations statewide occur in ex- isting buildings that are not slated for replacement or major renovation," High- berger said. "As it stands to- day, even as we identify cost reductions in courthouse construction, we have no ability to reallocate those dollars to urgently needed repair projects." ra counties -- given their rel- planned size of the buildings In a related action, the atively high costs and small or other economies, given the council also directed the AOC .... ............. 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