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California Supreme Court upholds death sentence of woman who killed 4-year-old niece

June 2, 2011 |  1:33 pm

The California Supreme Court upheld a death sentence Thursday for a San Diego County woman convicted of torturing and scalding to death her 4-year-old niece.

The state high court ruled 6-1 in favor of the death sentence for Veronica Utilia Gonzales, convicted of murdering Genny Rojas in 1995 by  putting her in bath water so hot that the girl suffered third-degree burns .

Testimony during Gonzales' trial also found that she had locked Genny in a closet, attached to a steel hook, and that the girl had been beaten and burned with a hair dryer and a curling iron prior to her death.

Genny had been living with Gonzales and her family in Chula Vista for several months prior to her death because the girl's mother was a drug addict and her father had molested her, authorities said. Gonzales and her husband had six children of their own, used crystal methamphetamine and collected welfare.

The state high court was divided over whether a prosecutor's inflammatory closing arguments in the form of a letter to Genny warranted an overturning of the death sentence, although all the justices agreed that the prosecutor’s remarks were improper.

"We choose as a group to adopt you and to take care of you," the prosecutor said during closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial. "You are a member of our family, those of us who have lived with you here in Department 32 ... will hold your torturers accountable, no matter what pain it puts us through, for we, Genny, will put you first and foremost in our souls."

Justice Carol A. Corrigan, writing for the majority, said the prosecutor emotionally asked jurors "to go beyond their role as arbiters of punishment prescribed by law" and invited jurors "to join him in assuming the role of a nuclear family for Genny."

Still, the majority concluded, there was "no reasonable [i.e., realistic] possibility" that the jury would have voted for life without parole rather than death if the remarks had not been made.

"The circumstances of this murder were almost unimaginably horrible," Corrigan wrote.

But Justice Rebecca A. Wiseman, a Fresno-based appeals court justice assigned to the case because of a vacancy on the high court, concluded  that the "extreme emotional nature" made it "reasonably possible that the improper argument tipped the balance" in the jury’s decision to vote for the death penalty.

Upholding the sentence "establishes a new low bar" for prosecutorial errors and gives incentives for overly zealous prosecutors to "push the limits without serious fear of reversal," Wiseman wrote.

The ruling came in People vs. Gonzales, S072316.

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-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco

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