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Emotions rock capital punishment sentencing in Riverside

by Mary Shelton Saturday, Apr. 26, 2003 at 6:18 PM

Last week, Steve Woodruff was sentenced to death amidst a courtroom filled with mixed emotions involving what has been one of Riverside's most controversial cases.

By Mary Shelton

Inside a packed courtroom, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Christian Thierbach sentenced Steve Woodruff to death, for the killing of Riverside Police Department detective Doug Jacobs in 2001.

Emotions of anger, grief and then celebration filled a room crowded with Jacobs' relatives, police officers, prosecutors and at least one former juror, as Thierbach issued his ruling.

Several members of Woodruff's family including his young daughter attended the sentencing and bowed their heads, in response to the announcement that Woodruff would be transferred to San Quentain Penitentiary within the next several weeks where he would await his execution date on death row.

Woodruff told the court that he was convicted from day one, but that he did not kill Jacobs.

"I didn't kill that man," he said, "I didn't do it as God is my witness."

He turned towards former officer Ben Baker who was sitting in the audience with his wife and said that he was responsible for the shooting.

"You have allowed evil to come into your heart, Baker and it will destroy you," Woodruff said, "The truth eats at you. Why not tell the truth?"

Baker yelled in response that Woodruff needed to look at the evidence and at the video tape.

"You were a coward on January 13," Baker said, "You are still a coward today."

Thierbach pounded his gavel and called for Baker to be quiet, as officers formed a wall of support around him.

Baker did not speak at the sentencing, but his wife Yvonne did, describing how her life had changed when her husband returned home after the shooting, a changed man.

""I looked into his face and saw a completely different man, Only a hollow shell remained" she said, "Ben died that day."

She told of how he often wakes up screaming, please don't die, and how he said he had looked frantically for an exit wound in Jacobs' head after the shooting.

"How dare you accuse my husband of murder, " she said, " I sincerely hope you rot in Hell."

Jacobs' father, Charles D. Jacobs, Sr. said he would witness the death of Woodruff because he had systematically killed his son.

"As there was no remorse, there will be no forgiveness," he said.

Tamara, Jacobs' wife, said that she had been awaiting this day "since 4:45 p.m. on Jan. 13, 2001.

"Killing an officer is reason enough in this country to give someone the death penalty," she said.

Woodruff's brother, John, asked Thierbach to sentence his brother to life in prison without parole instead of death, adding that his brother was trying to protect his family

"My brother did not cold-bloodedly kill that officer," he said, before adding that the trial had raised many questions in his mind about what had happened during the shooting.

He also said that he did not see the police officers sitting behind him as people who would protect him, but rather as people who might hurt him and his family.

Earlier, Thierbach had denied a motion filed by the defense for a new trial.

Defense attorney Mark Blankenship wrote in his motion that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence about two of its witnesses, then-Det. Vic Williams and then-Sgt. Gary Leach, which had compromised his ability to cross-examine both witnesses.

Blankenship had discovered that Williams had been arrested and prosecuted in 1994 for an alleged domestic violence incident involving his wife, where he had struck her in the face during an argument. During the trial, Williams testified that there was an allegation made and it was dismissed. However, court records show that Williams was charged with three misdemeanors and had entered a diversion program which included a ,000 fine and 52 weeks of anger-management classes. After he completed diversion, Williams, who is currently assigned to the Internal Affairs division, had the charges dropped. After a hearing was conducted on the matter in December, Thierbach ruled that Williams' conduct could be used to impeach his testimony, abeit after the fact.

After the trial, it was discovered that in 1994, David Leach had filed a law suit against his brother, Gary M. Leach in Riverside County Superior Court regarding an assault and battery that had occurred inside a supermarket where he worked. In the suit, David stated that Gary had punched him in the face during an argument and then fallen on top of him, causing him to suffer from severe injuries including comminuted compound fractures of his proximal tibia and a ruptured ACL ligament in his knee according to a letter written by his physician. On Oct. 2, 1995, Judge William Sullivan issued a judgment by default, awarding 5,000 to David Leach. Prosecutor Michael Soccio told the court that Gary Leach had told him he knew nothing about the judgment. Personal information including an address in the judgment given for Leach matches that information given by him when he made a financial contribution to Riverside Councilman Ed Adkison's campaign in 1999.

Thierbach said that since it was the defense who had discovered Williams' record not the prosecution that he would not consider that information prejudicial to the case. In Leach's case, Thierbach said that while criminal charges could have been filed against him, the information had little bearing on the case because in his view, Leach was only a "minor" player in the tragic shooting. Thierbach said that while he believed that Leach was onscene when the shots were fired, he was in no position to fire any shots himself. During the trial, Leach had denied hearing any shots, and said he had arrived after the shooting.

Thierbach said that there was no doubt in his mind that Woodruff had fired the fatal shots.

Thierbach added that he found Baker's testimony effective and nothing short of chilling especially when he had described looking down the barrel of Woodruff's gun. Thierbach said while Woodruff may have been emotionally distressed, he did not believe that it rose to the level of where he felt he had to use lethal force.

"No reasonable person would use deadly force to prevent the issuance of a citation or an arrest for a relatively minor misdemeanor," Thierbach said.

Blankenship disagreed with the sentence but said that he was happy that his motion had put all the trial's issues into the court record even if the convictions were not overturned. He expressed his belief that the case would be overturned by a higher court more readily than it would had the sentence involved life in prison without parole.

A development that would upset at least one anonymous person who phoned Blankenship at his home last month and left a message which was as chilling as anything heard in court. One of several death threats he has received in connection to the controversial case that was listened to by the Black Voice News.

"Just let it go, just let it go, before I kill you..." the distraught male caller said, "I can't believe I just threatened you."

The case moves onto the California State Supreme Court for automatic review.

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