In a decision issued in San Francisco, the court unanimously affirmed the penalty of David Murtishaw, 53, for fatally shooting three students who were making a film in the Mohave Desert on April 9, 1978.
This is the third time the case has come before the state high court.
Murtishaw was initially convicted and sentenced to death in Kern County Superior Court in 1979 for murdering James Henderson, 24, Marti Soto, 21, and Ingrid Etayo, 22, with a rifle.
The three victims were helping University of Southern California film student Lance Wyatt make a film about a man stranded in the desert. Soto, who was married to Wyatt, and Henderson were acting in the film, and Etayo helped with props.
Murtishaw and his brother-in-law had driven to the desert with their rifles after drinking heavily and were practicing shooting a beer can on the hood of their car.
In a later confession to police, Murtishaw said he and his brother-in-law had drunk three to four six-packs of beer that day. He said he was “scared and just mixed up” and fired after one of the students shot from a blank pistol used in one of the film scenes.
A prison inmate later testified, however, that Murtishaw told him he killed the students to steal their car to sell for drugs.
Wyatt was injured but survived and ran to a highway and summoned help.
In its first ruling on the case in 1981, the state high court upheld Murtishaw’s conviction but ordered a new death penalty trial. Murtishaw was again sentenced to death, and the state Supreme Court upheld the penalty in 1989.
But in 2001, a federal appeals court ordered another death penalty trial. Murtishaw was resentenced to death in Kern County Superior Court and then appealed again to the state Supreme Court.
In today’s decision, the court rejected a series of appeal claims that challenged trial court rulings and the state’s death penalty law.
Justice Carlos Moreno said the court had previously rejected the challenges to the law in other cases.
“We see no reason to reconsider any of these rulings,” Moreno wrote.
Murtishaw’s lawyer in the appeal was not immediately available for comment.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News