Race, Murder Roil Chico

Melody Gutierrez, San Francisco Chronicle, November 3, 2013

For nearly 25 years, Steven Crittenden has been condemned to Death Row at San Quentin State Prison for the gruesome 1987 murder of a prominent Chico couple in their home. Since the day of his arrest, Crittenden has looked for a way to escape, first briefly breaking out of the Butte County Jail prior to his trial, and through endless appeals since he was sent to prison.

Crittenden, 45, is now closer to freedom than ever. And it has nothing to do with whether he killed the affable town doctor and his wife.

A federal judge in Sacramento recently overturned his 1989 conviction based on a technicality in a trial that at the time sparked racial tensions in the overwhelmingly white town some 90 miles north of Sacramento.

The lawyers for Crittenden, a black man from Fairfield, successfully argued that a prosecutor showed racial bias when he dismissed the only black prospective juror.

Prosecutors said they dismissed the prospective juror because it was a death-penalty case and she did not believe in the death penalty.

But San Francisco attorney Mark Goldrosen called the dismissal of the lone black prospective juror in a primarily white town “outrageous,” particularly when the woman did not express more reservations about the death penalty than white jurors who were selected.

Crittenden was ordered to be released or retried.

The Butte County District Attorney’s Office calls the bias claim “insane.”

It was the case of a black man accused of murdering a well-to-do white couple, but in Chico, the dynamics were much more than that.

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The city and Cal State Chico have a party-hard reputation, which has proven difficult to rebrand since Playboy awarded Cal State Chico the dubious title as the nation’s No.1 party school in 1987. That same month, fear and outrage struck the campus when Crittenden, a well-liked football player at Cal State Chico, was accused in a double murder. Three years before, Crittenden had helped Vanden High School in Fairfield win a state basketball championship.

“At first, it was, ‘No way,’ ” said Charles Carter, director of the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center at Cal State Chico, a longtime staff member and former student at the university. “Then the evidence came out, and it was like, What’s wrong with this guy? And what does this mean for us?”

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Cal State Chico has 15,000 full-time students. Fewer than 2 percent are black, 19 percent are Hispanic and 55 percent are white. Although the university has long emphasized recruiting minorities, it has proved a very difficult sell given the demographics of the surrounding town. Chico’s population of 88,000 is 81 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black.

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It wasn’t just murder. It was torture, prosecutors argued successfully.

William and Katherine Chiapella, who were in their late 60s, were gagged and bound with a strawberry-patterned cloth similar to sheets found in Crittenden’s room.

They were beaten and stabbed with such force that a large knife was driven completely into William Chiapella’s chest, with the handle not visible. Crittenden was arrested in the murders and attempted to escape from jail three times. He escaped successfully once from Butte County Jail before his trial, but was caught.

He pleaded not guilty, saying he had never been to the Chiapella home.

The Chiapellas, described as pillars of the community, had previously hired Crittenden to do yard work at $4.50 per hour, but he didn’t show up.

And when he did show up, prosecutors argued, it was for another reason.

Prosecutors convinced the jury that Crittenden was behind on his rent and fighting with his live-in girlfriend when he went on a murderous rampage at the Chiapellas’ home on Downing Street in an upper-middle-class neighborhood across from an elementary school.

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The evidence prosecutors presented at trial won the case: Crittenden’s thumbprint on a desk. A footprint in the home that matched a pair of shoes found in Crittenden’s room. A $3,000 check Crittenden cashed from Katherine Chiapella the day after the murders. He told police the check was for a sexual arrangement he had with Katherine Chiapella, a claim that the district attorney likened to spitting on the woman’s grave.

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Crittenden’s case now comes down to one question: Why was the only black prospective juror dismissed?

U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ruled in September that former chief deputy Jerry Flanagan of the Butte County District Attorney’s Office improperly dismissed the only black prospective juror substantially due to her race, whether “consciously or unconsciously.”

Flanagan declined to comment. Ramsey said the judge’s ruling essentially called Flanagan a racist when “that man doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.”

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