Photo via Pixabay
Photo via Pixabay

A convicted killer who, from his jail cell, arranged the murder of a witness against him in a robbery case, told a judge Monday he doesn’t want his attorneys to actively defend him against the death penalty.

The judge then agreed, and told the defendant’s attorneys they would not be allowed to put on much of their case in battling a death sentence.

“I don’t want to even listen to the proceedings. I don’t care,” defendant Michael Thomas, 50, insisted in court. He then left the courtroom without hearing the prosecution’s opening statement in the penalty phase of his murder trial.

“I don’t care for anyone to know about my life … to go into detail about my upbringing, my family,” Thomas, who spent time in juvenile detention, told the judge.

When questioned by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry, Thomas said a number of times that he didn’t want to be in court and didn’t want his attorneys to call witnesses or make any statements in his defense. Thomas reiterated a stance he took last Thursday when jurors convicted him of murdering 42-year-old Erik Poltorak.

A defense lawyer failed in his effort to sway the judge to allow a full defense. “We are obligated as defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence,” Joel Koury said, telling the judge that the defense planned to call an expert on child development and a gang expert who would impeach some of the prosecution’s witnesses.

But Perry disagreed, overriding multiple objections by the defense attorneys and ruling that they would not be allowed to present an opening statement, call witnesses, offer a closing argument or cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.

“It is not irrational to prefer the death penalty to life in prison without the possibility of parole,” Perry said, adding later, “I’m not allowing you to put on a defense when he doesn’t want you to.”

After allowing Thomas to leave the courtroom, Perry called him back to restate his wishes and shortly after that said he didn’t want to hear any more arguments from the defense.

“I made the decision. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” he concluded.

Murder victim Poltorak was the target of an Aug. 13, 2011 home invasion robbery. Poltorak had planned to testify against Thomas, identifying him as the perpetrator. Poltorak was shot to death on his doorstep in Beverly Grove on Halloween night 2012.

Jurors found true special circumstances allegations of killing a witness and lying in wait, which make Thomas eligible for a death sentence and triggered the penalty trial phase that began Monday.

Thomas was dressed in blue jail garb rather than the dress shirt and other street clothes most defendants wear during trial and said he wanted to go back to sleep.

Defense attorneys James Cooper and Koury said members of Thomas’ family from Oklahoma and Vancouver, Canada, would be in court Tuesday and could offer testimony about his character.

“We are trying to change his mind,” Cooper told the judge of their uncooperative client, adding that he hoped seeing family members would make a difference.

His attorneys argued that Thomas was still shaken by the conviction and unable to make a coherent decision in his own best interests.

Perry disagreed.

“Mr. Thomas is an intelligent man and he has decided that he doesn’t want to be here,” the judge said.

Deputy District Attorney Candice Henry also objected to Thomas not being in court to hear witnesses against him and victims’ impact statements.

Perry cited case law that he said gave Thomas the right to waive his appearance, and added that he had presided over a case more than a decade ago in which the defendants had asked their attorneys not to put on a defense.

Those defendants believed their accommodations would be better on death row and were “not afraid that … given the broken system … the death penalty was going to come their way anytime soon,” Perry said.

That said, the judge agreed that it was “very unusual” that “a death penalty defendant would effectively ask for the death penalty.”

The defense argued that it wasn’t Thomas’s choice to make. He could choose not to testify in his own defense, but could not prevent his attorneys from putting on a case.

All of this happened while jurors waited in the hallway. When they were seated, Perry told them only, “The defendant is not here. He has asked to not be here.”

During his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Bobby Zoumberakis played a 911 call in which a co-worker who arrived at Poltorak’s house and found him shot in the face and back of the head sounded hysterical and was hyperventilating.

She tied the murder to Poltorak’s pending court appearance, telling the 911 dispatcher, “I’m sure he did it, he did it,” of the man charged in the robbery case, without citing Thomas by name.

Poltorak “left behind a 15-year-old daughter who suffered from autism,” Zoumberakis said, telling the six-man, six-woman jury they would hear evidence of the impact of the crime on her life.

“She was 9 years old when he was killed … she can’t talk about it to this day,” Zoumberakis said.

“This was a brutal execution,” but the case isn’t just about Poltorak, the prosecutor said. “The other victim” is the justice system and the penalty phase is about “making sure no one is above the law,” he said.

Zoumberakis said Thomas manipulated his three co-defendants to carry out Poltorak’s killing and had a long history of criminal and violent acts, including threats to Culver City police officers, a stabbing and using a shank in jail.

“This is the type of conduct and this is the type of (individual) that warrants it,” Zoumberakis told the jury, asking them to recommend the death penalty rather than life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Allen Williams, the gunman, who was 23 years old with no prior criminal record at the time of the crime, is serving a life sentence without the chance of parole.

Thomas’s niece, Jessicha Thomas, was 20 years old at the time and also had no criminal record. She testified against Thomas in exchange for a leniency agreement for second-degree murder.

Yvonne Keith, 49 years old at the time of the murder, pressured the other two into committing the killing. She is also serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

–City News Service 

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