Twists and turns in trial have strange impact
Aider and abettor or solo killer? The questions raised during Sam Strange’s trial for the murders of Dawn Donaldson and Crissy Campbell never were fully answered, some say.
The fact that Strange never testified in his own defense — and that District Attorney Mike Ferguson included a jury instruction that allowed the panel to convict Strange as an aider and abettor to the murders — left many in the county unsatisfied that justice was done.
The public outrage included failed recall petitions against Ferguson, judges John Darlington and Ersel Edwards and former Sheriff Troy Arbaugh. Ferguson won re-election in 1998 with 55 percent of the vote. Both judges remained on the bench, but Arbaugh lost his job to Keith Royal, who took 59 percent of the vote.
In 1999, Ferguson called the Strange case the most challenging of the six murder trials he had prosecuted.
Richard Frishman, who defended Strange along with Scott Fielder, said that Strange was “the worst case I ever handled — far and away the toughest case I ever had.”
Frishman said a number of issues prevented a fair trial, including the inadmissibility of some evidence.
“The two people who perpetrated the murders were not prosecuted,” he said. “Sam didn’t get a fair trial.”
The decision to keep Strange off the stand was something he has regretted ever since, Frishman said.
“There was a lot of blame to go around,” he said.
Frishman conceded the blood evidence and forensic evidence pointed to his client, but only as the “clean-up guy.”
He added, however, that he felt the Sheriff’s Office didn’t investigate fully because they had honed in on Strange.
“They had tunnel vision,” he said.
“It was a tough, tough case,” Frishman added. “I still feel great sorrow about what happened to those girls.”
Sacramento-based attorney Charles Bonneau handled much of the appeal process for Strange, mostly arguing ineffective assistance of counsel because the defense did not put him on the stand.
At the federal level, Bonneau said, the case did get a favorable response after an evidentiary hearing, which he said was “extraordinary.”
“The judge felt Strange gave a logical explanation, putting two others at the scene,” Bonneau said. “He was not the perpetrator, he was the accessory … (The judge) agreed he should have testified. Objectively, it would have made a difference.”
According to the findings and recommendations filed in November 2002 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Hollows, “the defense case was doomed without his testimony … Petitioner’s testimony was a necessity to tie up and mitigate the forensic evidence.”
After an objection was filed, a different judge disagreed, however, and the last appeal was eventually denied.
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