Man awaiting retrial dies at hospital

March 3, 2009 12:32:25 PM PST
A Concord man who was awaiting retrial for the 1982 rape and murder of his 63-year-old neighbor died Monday afternoon at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee said Tuesday.

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Michael Jennings, 58, was convicted in 1984 in Contra Costa County Superior Court for raping, murdering and robbing Violet Newman on Aug. 7, 1982.

Newman had been stabbed 14 times in the chest and abdomen. Her carotid artery and jugular vein had both been severed and her body showed ligature marks suggesting she had been bound with rope by her neck and ankles.

Prosecutors at his trial presented voluminous circumstantial evidence linking Jennings to the attack, including fingerprints and other physical evidence.

In 1984 Jennings was convicted and sentenced to death for his crimes, but in 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction after a three-judge panel found that Jennings' defense attorney, Michael Oliver, had failed to look into Jennings' history of mental illness and drug abuse.

According to the appeals court decision, Jennings had a documented family history of mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia and severe alcoholism.

The appeals court also found evidence to suggest that Jennings had been molested as a child by his mother and grandfather and had been mutilating himself since he was 6 years old, a behavior that resulted in frequent bouts of gangrene that Jennings exacerbated with foreign materials, such as toothpaste and battery acid, according to the appeals court.

Jennings and his brothers had also been beaten regularly by both their parents throughout their childhoods.

According to the appeals decision, a psychiatric evaluation revealed that, during the period leading up to Newman's murder, Jennings was experiencing psychotic symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, memory gaps and periods of dissociation, at least partly as a result of heavy methamphetamine use.

The psychiatrist conducting the examination concluded that Jennings was "psychotic and dissociated at the time of the crime" and could neither form the intent to kill, rape, rob, or burglarize, nor to premeditate or deliberate.

The appeals decision stated that if Oliver had presented evidence of Jennings' history and his mental state at the time of the crime, the conviction could have turned out differently.

After his conviction was overturned, Jennings was sent back to county jail in Martinez, where he remained until Jan. 12 when he was taken to the county hospital for treatment of a terminal illness, Lee said.

Prosecutor Paul Sequeira said today that the district attorney's office had planned to seek the death penalty against Jennings once again, but that Jennings had hepatitis C and had been too ill to talk to his attorney or attend court hearings.

Because of Jennings' illness, no date for his retrial had been set, Sequeira said.

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