The California Supreme Court Monday upheld the death sentence for a jealous, angry Van Nuys boyfriend who burned his girlfriend alive in her car.
The flaming vehicle was found on the side of a Southland freeway, and authorities initially believed it was involved in a crash. But a murder probe was soon launched as law enforcement examined the scene further.
The state’s highest court rejected the defense’s contention that there were numerous errors in Donald Lewis Brooks Jr.’s trial in a San Fernando courtroom.
Brooks was convicted in June 2001 of first-degree murder, stalking and arson causing great bodily injury involving Lisa Kerr, 32, of Panorama City.
The justices noted that Brooks had become “increasingly jealous and possessive of Kerr, and he was angry and upset that she wanted to reconcile with her husband.”
“Premeditation was … shown by strong circumstantial evidence, including the secluded location of Kerr’s burning car and evidence showing that defendant poured accelerant over Kerr and the inside of her car, stuffed a burning rag into the gas tank and, when that did not ignite the accelerant, lit a rolled-up piece of paper on fire and threw it into the car to set it ablaze,” the panel found.
Jurors in the original trial also found true the special circumstance allegations of murder during the commission of a kidnapping and murder involving the infliction of torture.
Kerr’s body was found at about 4 a.m. March 24, 1999, in her fire-gutted 1994 Ford Probe, which had been left on an embankment along the Hollywood (170) Freeway at Roscoe Boulevard. At first, firefighters thought Kerr could have died in a fiery wreck, but authorities later determined that the mother of a 7-year-old son had been murdered.
In a 143-page ruling authored by Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil- Sakauye, the panel found that “the evidence of premeditation, including defendant’s own statements, was extremely strong.”
The justices noted that Brooks — who had worked as a plumber — told his plumbing assistant several months before Kerr’s death that he wanted to get Kerr “off his mind” by blowing up her car or setting it on fire.
Justice Goodwin H. Liu agreed with the majority’s decision on all of the points raised by the defense except for whether there was sufficient evidence to support the special circumstance allegation of murder during a kidnapping.
“Based on the evidence here, I do not see how a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Brooks had an independent felonious purpose for the kidnapping,” he wrote.
Brooks was charged in April 1999 with the woman’s killing.
He was not seen again until his arrest that July in Colorado Springs, after he was featured on a “Crimestoppers” segment that featured his photo. Brooks, who had been living in Colorado under an assumed name, decided not to fight extradition and was returned to Southern California five days later.
Police said at the time of Brooks’ arrest that he had apparently become enraged after Kerr told him she did not want to see him any more.
Trial testimony showed that he had stalked the woman between Sept. 1, 1998, and the day she died, and that the discovery of soot in her mouth and other body parts showed that she was alive when the fire was started. Brooks was sentenced to death in July 2001.
— Staff and wire reports
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