Jun 30, 2008

The Murder Case That Won't Die

In 1979, 12-year-old Robin Samsoe disappeared.  She was supposed to be on her way to ballet class but never arrived. About two weeks later, the police found her remains some 50 miles away. About a month later, Rodney Alcala was arrested and charged with murdering her. He was convicted and sentenced to death. But that's hardly the end of the story: Nearly 30 years after Robin was killed, both Alcala and the case remain very much alive.

In 1984, the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The Court ruled that the trial judge had improperly allowed the jurors to hear evidence of Alcala's attacks on other young girls. So Alcala was again tried and convicted of killing Robin, but this time the California Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

Having exhausted his state court remedies, in 1994, Alcala filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Nearly an entire decade passed before a federal court of appeal upheld the petition and again set aside Alcala's conviction. This time, the primary reason was that Alcala's trial lawyer was incompetent. The attorney had presented alibi evidence, but inexplicably failed to call the alibi witnesses who would have placed Alcala in another location at the time Robin disappeared.

Alcala now faces a third trial for killing Robin Samsoe. While Alcala has remained imprisoned, the police have uncovered DNA evidence allegedly linking Alcala to the murders of four other young women that took place between 1977 and 1979, so he now faces five charges of murder.

Is Alcala's case a shining example of our legal system at its best, trying to ensure that a man is not executed for a murder that he may not have committed after being represented by an incompetent lawyer? Or does his case portray our system at its worst, forcing Robin's family to watch as the courts bat a serial killer's case endlessly back and forth like a ping pong ball? At this point, either conclusion seems reasonable. What do you think?

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