The state appeals court in Santa Ana has ruled against the Orange County District Attorney's office prosecuting on new murder charges two men who were convicted and served prison time for shooting Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Ira Gabor Essoe, Jr. in 1980.
Essoe was paralyzed for life after being shot and when he died on Feb. 4, 2010, authorities cited the injuries he suffered 30 years earlier as the cause. That prompted the OCDA to file murder charges against David Michael Knick of Yucca Valley and Robert Duston Strong of Riverside.
Strong and Knick were paroled in the 1990s after respectively receiving sentences of 17 years, four months, and 16 years, eight months, for the attempted murder and assault against Essoe.
Under the law, there is no statute of limitations on murder if it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a criminal act resulted in a death," explained an OCDA statement on last November's Orange Police Department arrests of Knick and Strong, who were 54 and 55 respectively at the time. The pair was charged with one felony count each of murder, held on $1 million bail apiece and facing new sentences of up to 25 years to life in state prison.
The new prosecutions were based on the Legislature in 1997 eliminating language in state law that stipulated murder charges could only be filed in an assault case if the victim died within three years and a day of the attack. This change is known as Penal Code Section 194.
Strong vs. Superior Court of Orange County, which named District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Deputy District Attorneys Keith Bogardus and James T. Mulgrew as real parties of interest, argued that Strong and Knick could not retroactively be tried on the basis of a law that was passed after they did their time. According to the California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Division Three ruling filed Monday, a unanimous panel of justices--William F. Rylaarsdam, Richard M. Aronson and Raymond J. Ikola--agreed.
Charging Strong and Kick based on section 194 violated the California and U.S. constitutions, according to the ruling that prohibits the trial court from prosecuting the pair for Essoe's murder.
"Specifically, the express prerequisite that 'the party die within three years and a day after the stroke received or the cause of death administered' unmistakably established a time bar for homicide charges," reads part of the opinion written by Aronson.
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"The district attorney appears to argue that a present enactment does not operate retrospectively precisely because it is applied currently, rather than retroactively. This, however, is merely a variation of the district attorney's argument that a homicide is not complete until the victim dies. The district attorney overlooks that the retroactive application at issue concerns section 194, not whether the statutory elements of murder are complete. In essence, the district attorney's argument reduces to the claim that a new law is not retroactive because it is current.
"But this circular, conclusory rationale simply ignores the meaning of the term 'ex post facto' and would eliminate ex post facto protection from the Constitution. This is not the law. The present version of section 194, as applied here, has a retroactive effect because it voids the prior immunity afforded by the expiration of a time bar. Prosecution under the new statute therefore violates the ex post facto clause (Stogner, supra, 539 U.S. at pp. 607, 632-633) of the federal and state Constitutions."
Essoe was shot on Nov. 6, 1980 while attempting to rescue his partner from three armed men who were in the act of stealing a car. The shooting paralyzed him, and he never fully recovered. His wife Ramona Essoe cared for him for 29 ½ years as his health deteriorated. The OCDA and the Orange County Sheriff's Department consider his death a homicide in the line of duty.