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James Leslie KARIS Jr.





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Kidnapping - Rape
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 8, 1981
Date of birth: 1951
Victim profile: Peggy Pennington, 34
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: El Dorado County, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on September 17, 1982. Re-sentenced to death on April 25, 2007 after original sentence overturned. Died in prison on January 31, 2013

James Leslie Karis Jr.

Sacramento County

Date of offense: July 8, 1981

Date of death sentence: Sept. 17, 1982 (Re-sentenced to death April 25, 2007 after original sentence overturned)

Karis kidnapped two El Dorado County workers on their morning break, then took them at gunpoint to a remote area near Placerville, where he forced both to remove their clothes and then raped one of them. Karis then let them get dressed, marched them to another spot and shot both of them.

One of the victims, Peggy Pennington, died, but the other victim survived and later testified at trial. Karis was sentenced to die, but a federal judge overturned his sentence in 1998 after hearing evidence of Karis’ tormented and abusive childhood. Karis faced a second trial in 2007 in Sacramento and refused to allow his lawyers to offer evidence of his childhood abuse or anything else that might win him a life sentence.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation


Death Row Inmate Dies In Cell

Convicted of rape and murder of El Dorado County Employees

February 1, 2013

SAN QUENTIN (CBS13) – An inmate on death row at San Quentin State Prison was found dead in his cell Thursday morning.

James Leslie Karis, 61, was found unresponsive in hi single cell and pronounced dead at 6:40 a.m. The cause of death is pending autopsy results.

Karis was sentenced to death Sept. 17, 1982, by a Sacramento County jury for the July 8, 1981, rape and murder of Peggy Pennington, 34, and the attempted murder of Patty Vander Dussen, 27, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Karis had abducted them during their daily walk around the block of the El Dorado County Welfare Department where both women were employed and took them to a remote area near Placerville.

Karis had been on death row since Sept. 20, 1982.

A federal judge overturned his death sentence in 1998 after hearing evidence of Karis’ tormented and abusive childhood. Karis faced a second trial in 2007 in Sacramento and refused to allow his lawyers to offer evidence of his childhood abuse or anything else that might win him a life sentence.

Since 1978 when California reinstated capital punishment, 57 condemned inmates have died from natural causes, 21 have committed suicide, 13 have been executed in California, one was executed in Missouri; and six have died from other causes. There are 729 prisoners currently on California’s death row.


Man convicted in El Dorado County killing dies on death row

By Sam Stanton - The Sacramento Bee

Friday, Feb. 1, 2013

James Leslie Karis Jr., a convicted killer whose court case became so tangled in death penalty politics that he was sentenced to death twice, died early Thursday at San Quentin's death row.

Karis, 61, was found unresponsive inside the cell where he was housed alone and later pronounced dead at 6:40 a.m., the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.

The cause of death is not known, and an autopsy will be performed.

What is known is that he did not die from a state-ordered execution. California has not executed an inmate since January 2006 because of legal fights over the death penalty.

Karis was sent to death row Sept. 20, 1982, after his conviction in the rape and murder of 34-year-old Peggy Pennington. He abducted Pennington and another woman in July 1981 as they took their daily walk around their workplace at the El Dorado County Welfare Department.

He took them at gunpoint to a remote area near Placerville and forced both to remove their clothes.

Karis raped one of them, then let them get dressed, marched them to another spot and shot both of them.

Pennington died, but the other victim, a 27-year-old woman, survived and later testified at trial.

Karis was sent to death row, but a federal judge overturned his sentence in 1998 after finding that evidence of Karis' tormented and abusive childhood had not been presented as evidence during the penalty phase.

Karis faced a second trial in 2007 in Sacramento and refused to allow his lawyers to offer evidence of his childhood abuse or anything else that might win him a life sentence.

He was returned to death row and, until Thursday, was one of 729 inmates awaiting execution.

Karis' public defender in his original trial, Stephen Tapson, recalled his client as a "big, gruff guy."

During the death penalty phase, the judge did not allow the abuse evidence to be used and ordered Karis sent to death row, said Tapson, now one of El Dorado County's most prominent defense attorneys.

Appellate lawyers later returned to court to try to present the childhood abuse evidence, but Karis refused to allow it, taking over the case himself and telling the judge that the evidence didn't "amount to a hill of beans."

"They spent hours digging up all these terrible things about his childhood to present to a jury in hopes they would not send him to death and he basically said '(Screw) you,' " Tapson recalled. "So he chose his own death penalty."

A federal judge in Sacramento overturned the death penalty in 1998 because evidence of his childhood trauma had not been presented, and Karis faced another penalty phase trial in which jurors again concluded he should die.

Tapson said the millions of dollars spent and years of legal wrangling "is a classic example of the need to abolish the death penalty because they just die there, so you don't have to worry about it."

"It's much cheaper if they die in prison rather than trying to kill them," he added.

California voters so far have not agreed with that stance. They rejected a ballot measure in November that would have eliminated the death penalty, and victims' groups have launched efforts to overturn impediments to restarting executions in California, among them an effort to switch to using one drug instead of three to execute inmates.

"It's a shame that a monster like Karis was permitted to die of natural causes," El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said. "Obstructionist tactics and weak representatives in Sacramento allowed this to happen.

"It's time for the governor to enact real reforms to the death penalty system."


Condemned Inmate's Counsel Called Deficient

Courts: Appeals panel orders new sentencing hearing for defendant on death row for 20 years, saying his attorneys failed to investigate his childhood

By Henry Weinstein - Los Angeles Times

March 19, 2002

A Sacramento man who has been on death row for 20 years for murder and rape is entitled to a new sentencing hearing because he received constitutionally deficient legal representation, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Monday.

The decision was the fifth this year in which the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers nine western states, has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a death row inmate in California.

The court ruled 2 to 1 that trial attorneys for James L. Karis, 50, had failed to adequately investigate his childhood, including beatings and molestations.

If the attorneys had thoroughly investigated Karis' background and presented adequate evidence, a jury might have given Karis a life sentence rather than the death penalty, the panel ruled.

In 1981, Karis kidnapped two El Dorado County welfare department employees at gunpoint on a Placerville Street while they were on their lunch break.

He drove them to a remote area, ordered the women to disrobe, bound one of them and raped the other.

Karis ordered the women into a hole and after one of them pleaded for their lives, he shot them with a handgun and covered them with stones, according to trial testimony.

One of the women feigned death and after Karis left she crawled out of the hole, made her way to a nearby road and was rescued. Karis was arrested a week later in Sonoma County.

The case was transferred to Sacramento from El Dorado County because of extensive publicity about the gruesome crime. The surviving victim testified against Karis at the 1982 trial.

The conviction and death sentence had previously been upheld by the California Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court had declined review.

After those actions, the defense filed claims in federal district court in Sacramento. Monday's decision comes more than three years after a federal judge in Sacramento first vacated Karis' death sentence on the recommendation of a magistrate.

The ruling, written by Judge Procter Hug Jr., said that the magistrate was correct in determining that a defense lawyer who had "performed a proper investigation could have offered substantial and wrenching evidence of [Karis'] violent and abusive childhood."

The defense lawyers could have obtained information that Karis saw his father and stepfather "viciously beat his mother; that both men also beat and abused him; and that [his father] molested him," the federal magistrate judge, John F. Moulds, wrote.

Hug, joined by Judge James R. Browning, also agreed with Moulds' reference to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the potential impact of such mitigating evidence:

"Evidence about the defendant's background and character is relevant because of the belief, long held by this society, that defendants who commit criminal acts that are attributable to a disadvantaged background, or to emotional and mental problems, may be less culpable than defendants who have no such excuse."

The panel concluded that Karis' trial attorney had performed deficiently and that the failures had prejudiced Karis' case, under standards delineated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Karis' appellate lawyer Norman J. Hile utilized testimony from a psychiatrist, a medical doctor and a criminal defense lawyer in the hearing before the magistrate.

The 9th Circuit also sustained the ruling of the federal district judge in Sacramento upholding the guilty verdict against Karis.

Karis has spent much of his adult life in prison. At the time of his arrest, Karis had been free on parole six months from the 1976 rape of a 17-year-old high school student in Santa Clara County.

Earlier, he had been imprisoned from 1971 to 1975 for a rape in Orange County.

In a dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld referred to Karis' lengthy record and linked it to his conclusion that the majority had improperly applied Supreme Court precedents on ineffective counsel.

"Counsel thoroughly investigated and prepared," Kleinfeld wrote, referring to Karis' trial lawyers. "The problem was that the investigation turned up little evidence. The shortage of evidence was because Karis was a very bad man."

He said Karis' attorney had not shown that there was a "reasonable probability" that the outcome of the sentencing would have been different but for the trial lawyer's errors.

"Though a jury in this case, as in any case, could have gone the other way, it was not counsel's fault that it did not," he said.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said the office was reviewing the ruling and had made no immediate decision on whether to seek a rehearing before a larger panel of 9th Circuit judges.


The making of a Killer

What turned James Karis Jr. into a cold-blooded murderer? A family tree from hell, for starters

By R. V. Scheide -

July 12, 2007

Sacramento attorney Michael Bigelow should have seen it coming. His client, convicted rapist and murderer James Karis Jr., has been saying it all along. During Bigelow’s visits to San Quentin’s death row, where Karis has been imprisoned for more than two decades, the inmate repeats his mantra: “You can present anything you want in court as long as I don’t have to be there.” Bigelow doesn’t take him literally. Why should he? The ante for Karis, 55, couldn’t be higher. His life is at stake. Of course he’ll be in court.

Except his client is telling him there’s no way in hell he’s appearing in person—and Bigelow can’t hear that.

This is James Karis: Twenty-six years ago last week, in broad daylight, he abducts two Placerville women and drives them to a secluded area just outside the town. He rapes one then shoots both in the back of the head, leaving them for dead. The crime rattles a rural hamlet unaccustomed to such brazen violence and sparks a statewide manhunt. Karis is captured one week later. One woman he shot survives to testify against him at the trial, which is held in Sacramento because of extensive pretrial publicity. In July 1982, a jury finds Karis guilty and sentences him to death.

Like all death-penalty convictions, the case automatically is appealed. As it grinds through the legal process, it gradually becomes clear that there has been a significant omission in the first trial: the defendant’s horrific family history of alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, sexual molestation, and mental illness spanning three generations. The history includes the violent beatings and molestation Karis received at the hands of his own father, as well as near-constant abuse from his mother and stepfather. This, too, is James Karis, or at least what makes him the menace to society he is today.

Call it the family tree from hell.

The evidence of Karis’ systematic abuse is so compelling that a federal judge overturns his death sentence in 1998, commuting it to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The state elects to retry the penalty phase, and in 2004 Bigelow and co-counsel Steven Bailey are assigned to defend Karis. Bigelow, Bailey, investigator Terry Butrym and a host of expert witnesses spend hours gathering, assembling and interpreting evidence that Bigelow distills down to a five-hour Power Point presentation he plans to present as his opening statement when the trial begins in April past.

And then comes the mantra.

“You can present anything you want in court as long as I don’t have to be there.”

Karis isn’t kidding. On the eve of the trial, he fires his defense team rather than sit in open court and relive his own terrifying past. By acting as his own attorney, he virtually guarantees his own death sentence. Apparently, some secrets are so painful they’re worth taking to the grave.

Sitting in his downtown Sacramento office on a pleasantly warm summer day months later, Bigelow still seems shaken by his inability to hear what Karis had been telling him all along.

“Some cases go away,” Bigelow says. “A case like this never goes away.”

Rangy and athletic with a shock of gray hair over a craggy countenance, Bigelow’s has a thriving law practice; he’s one of a handful of local attorneys who handle federal cases for indigent defendants. Bigelow currently represents one of the members of the alleged Hmong conspiracy to overthrow the Laotian government.

He couldn’t differ more from Karis, who never graduated from high school and has spent almost his entire adult life in prison. Yet there’s a connection between Bigelow and Karis that’s palpable, even though the convict is miles away on death row. Bigelow possesses a degree of empathy that’s rare in most people, particularly attorneys: a persistent need to root for the underdog. The extensive catalog of abuse his client endured seems etched on his face. The battle is over, but he’s still fighting to save Karis’ life.

“I say the kid didn’t have a chance,” Bigelow says. “There are kids who grow up and do fine who have been abused. But I doubt seriously there are very many kids walking around who have survived the kind of abuse I’m going to show you, the kind of environment I’m going to show you, the kind of genetic background I’m going to show you.”

Like James Karis Jr., he isn’t kidding.

Before Bigelow begins his presentation, some explanation is required. For starters, all of the information presented below is taken from public documents. More than 300,000 pages have been filed on the case. The defense team interviewed some 400 witnesses.

Secondly, the key to Bigelow’s defense strategy is the now widely accepted psychological theory that young children who witness and experience violent abuse not only learn that such behavior is acceptable, in some cases they also undergo neurological changes that can lead to mental disorders such as depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder, particularly in individuals genetically predisposed to such disorders. It is also well-recognized that patterns of physical, mental and sexual abuse can be passed from one generation to the next. As Bigelow puts it, “Genetics is the gun and environment is the trigger.”

Of course, it’s possible to transcend such circumstances; some children do. But few do it without help from a mentor of some sort—a parent, an aunt or uncle, a coach or teacher. One question posed by the defense on its questionnaire for prospective jurors asked if they had such a mentor when they were growing up. “Every single juror wrote yes,” Bigelow says.

On the other hand, Karis belongs to a family where mentoring was nonexistent for generations. On Bigelow’s flow chart—which he calls the “template"—the family tree from hell begins on the paternal side with Karis’ grandfather, George Karis. Born in Greece in 1903, he immigrates to the Bay Area, where he marries native Californian and raging alcoholic Evelyn Daves in 1926. They have five children: George Jr., Eugene, James Sr., Thomas and Esther. He punches, slaps and uses whatever household implement is handy to beat his wife and children into submission, according to his son, Thomas, a retired court reporter who today lives in Seattle.

James Sr., the future father of James Jr., is a favorite target of George’s onslaughts. When James breaks a window, George beats him with a heavy wooden board. Another time, he strikes James with a crowbar. Once, he nails his son between the eyes with a pair of scissors. The abuse takes its toll. By his early teens, James is physically assaulting all of his siblings and sexually molesting Thomas and Esther.

In 1937, George and Evelyn divorce and Evelyn hooks up with local bar owner and wife-beater Phino Cancilla. They have seven children; James Sr. molests two of them.

Thomas considers James Sr. a pedophile. In addition, his older brother exhibits wild, violent mood swings. Once, in an argument over a pencil, he stabs Thomas in the knee with a pair of needle-nose pliers, hobbling Thomas for six months. There are other signs of mental illness in the Karis family. George Jr. eventually develops schizophrenia. Esther suffers from severe depression. Tom graduates from high school and moves to the Pacific Northwest after a stint in the Air Force, escaping the family legacy.

Things aren’t much better on the maternal branch of the family tree, which takes root in Oklahoma. Elizabeth Howell, Karis’ great-great grandmother, is “Bible crazy” and rumored to have poisoned her husband. Karis’ great-great grandfather, William Murrin, is a notorious moonshiner who shared the family business with his son-in-law, John Otto Howell, Karis’ grandfather. They take turns molesting Dona Howell, 9, John’s second daughter.

John Howell is a violent inebriate prone to fistfights and raining blows down upon his family. In addition to molesting Dona, he sexually abuses her older sister Cora Lee. Later, when Dona is in her teens, her father comes into her room at night and rapes her as her younger sister Eva Marie, Karis’ mother, lies next to them in bed, her face buried in a pillow. When she is older, Marie becomes the object of her father’s “affections.”

At age 16, after migrating to California, Marie meets James Karis Sr. and falls madly in love with him. As one of the defense team’s psychological experts notes: “It is hard to envision a union more ill fated, one more predestined to produce damaged offspring.”

Meet James Karis Jr.'s parents.

It is 1951.The couple marry in Reno then move in to a dusty, cobweb-ridden tar-paper shack in San Jose owned by James Sr.'s stepfather, Cancilla. The honeymoon ends in a barrage of punches that blackens both of Marie’s eyes. Into this world comes James Jr., despite the pills James Sr. has been force-feeding his wife to induce a miscarriage.

The fights continue; young James Jr. watches on. Eventually, the couple separate. James Sr. provides no financial support but stalks his wife for years. Marie takes two jobs, leaving James Jr. with whoever is available. Once, after leaving him with his father, her son returns home with a circular burn from an automobile cigarette lighter on his hand. There are other mysterious injuries, scrapes, cuts and bruises.

James Sr. remarries and has four daughters, all of whom he eventually molests. When his oldest daughter prays as he rapes her just before Sunday school, he tells her, “Your God can’t help you now.” Later, James Sr. tearfully confesses to a half-brother that he molested James Jr., as well.

Marie is by no means any saint. Neighbors often witness her whipping young James Jr. with an extension cord. She burns through four husbands in six years, finally settling for Courtney Jones, who regularly beats her and James. They have a son, Kevin, who is favored over James Jr. The family constantly moves; James Jr. attends eight different grade schools and sometimes doesn’t go to class at all. When he is 10, Courtney and Marie separate and he becomes the male head of the household, responsible for the care of the difficult, hyperactive Kevin while his mom is at work or out partying all night.

By this time, the sadness and depression that will define Karis for the rest of his life has set in. Teachers notice his far-away stare. His futility, his sense of helplessness, is overwhelming. But Karis catches one of the few breaks he’ll ever get. His family moves in with his mother’s brother Jack Howell and his wife, Marlene. An alcoholic and an abuser, Jack nevertheless maintains a steady job as a truck driver and is a good provider. He becomes the first and only positive role model Karis will ever have. A mentor. They go on family camping and fishing trips. His grades in school stabilize. Things are looking up.

Bigelow clicks to the next slide in the demonstration. It’s a newspaper clipping from the San Jose Mercury News, dated June 1, 1966:

Driver of Truck Dies in Flames

A truck driver was burned to death in his cab after a spectacular 60-ft plunge off the 105th overpass. California Highway Patrol officers said Jack Howell, 41, lost control of the big-truck trailer rig after striking a parked car.

The impact of the slide is shattering.

“Remember my question about the mentor in the questionnaire?” Bigelow asks. “That’s it. Who was the one person in his life that James looked up to? Jack Howell. Who did he lose? Jack Howell. From there on, it was … a spiraling gyro, down to destruction.”

Karis holds on for a semester after Jack’s death, but by 10th grade his grades slip from B’s to D’s. Family, friends and teachers note his despondency. A dark, gloomy cloud hovers over him. He drops out of school at 16 and begins hanging out with Bob Baker, a 24-year-old with a criminal record who cultivates high-school-age boys with beer and drugs. Karis and Baker share an interest in motorcycles, and Karis purchases a used Triumph. The gang gather down by the river, where Karis often drinks beer until passing out. It’s the mid-1960s and the party is on. He smokes marijuana and drops LSD, peyote and mescaline. He sniffs paint and Freon. He injects methamphetamine, heroin and even whiskey.

Karis yearns to go to Vietnam, but isn’t old enough. The Army stations him in Alaska, where he repairs helicopters, shoots speed and makes trouble. A doctor records the track marks on his arm, the head injuries from various motorcycle accidents and his unruly behavior and recommends him for discharge. He is unfit for service and, perhaps, already incapable of living in open society. Big trouble waits just around the corner; the victim is about to become the abuser. His discharge is approved, and with nowhere else to go, he moves in with Baker, who has relocated to Anaheim.

Alcohol and drugs are his constant companions. Life with Baker is aimless, a nonstop party. During a drunken binge in February, he and a roommate accost three women parked at a service station in Garden Grove. While two of the women use the restroom, Karis climbs into the front seat and sticks a knife in 24-year-old Susan Maguire.

“Do as I say,” he whispers.

The other two girls return, and Karis directs them to a deserted warehouse district. His roommate pulls up behind them in his car. Karis forces Keri Alvarado, 22, into the roommate’s car.

“Take off your clothes.”

Then Karis and the roommate take turns raping her.

They are apprehended hours after the crime. Karis pleads guilty, the court sentences him to six months to life for aggravated rape. He is released in August 1975. In November, he rapes 17-year-old San Jose high school senior Deborah Brinker. After just four months of freedom, he returns to prison for his second aggravated rape conviction. Unfortunately, it will not be his last.

Karis is 27 when he is paroled from Vacaville in January 1981. All but 8 months of his adult life have been spent behind bars. As a condition of his parole, he registers as a mentally ill sex offender and attends monthly therapy sessions. Nevertheless, he holds his head high, determined to put the shame of two forcible rape convictions behind him.

His plans are doomed from the start.

He arrives at his mother’s small, one-bedroom apartment in Placerville only to find that his half-brother Kevin and his girlfriend have taken up residence the day before. The hyperactive younger sibling he cared for as a 10-year-old has flowered into a fully dysfunctional cocaine addict. Mom is on disability, waiting for her Social Security checks to start coming. Kevin and his girlfriend are deadbeats. The foursome live off Karis’ weekly $220 unemployment check.

Things quickly go from bad to worse. They move to a house in the country, 10 miles north of Placerville, near Kelsey. More often than not, breakfast, lunch and dinner consist of a thin brown gruel made from flour and water.

Karis tries to remain optimistic. In prison, he’d become an accomplished artisan, and now he sells some of his wares—wooden clocks, toys, jewelry—to The Crafty Lady in downtown Placerville. He cultivates a small marijuana crop. With his mother’s first Social Security check, he purchases gold prospecting equipment.

But none of the money-making schemes pan out.

Once a month, he visits Jay Rogust, a friend and fellow jewelry maker from prison who lives in Rancho Cordova with his girlfriend, Peggy Steubens. Steubens becomes one of the few people Karis feels comfortable confiding in. She listens patiently as Karis, often on the verge of tears, tells her of his crushing depression, his feelings of inadequacy, his fear of failure.

On the Fourth of July, Steubens and Rogust return home from a fireworks display to find Karis waiting for them. A rambling conversation turns to the issue of keeping a gun in the home and self-defense.

Sometime during that hot holiday weekend in 1981, three generations of alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, sexual molestation and mental illness, a lifetime of beatings, rejection, and failure coalesce in a single, dangerous mind. The family tree from hell looms large over James Karis Jr., and he reaches for the only thing that has ever made the pain go away, if only temporarily.

He sticks a needle in his arm and squeezes the plunger.

The first blast of methamphetamine washes away the pain with a wave of euphoria. When the pain returns, he shoots some more dope. Then some more. Days pass. When the meth runs out, whiskey takes the edge off, but it can’t stave the inevitable. The pain, the depression, the stress return with a vengeance, and the lethal machinery of genes and experience that make Karis brutalize women clicks into gear.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 8, he finds himself parked in Placerville on Clay Street beneath the Highway 50 overpass. A gun sits in his lap. It is just about 10:30 a.m., and Peggy Pennington, 34, and Patty Vander Dussen, 27, two employees of the nearby El Dorado County Welfare Department, are on their daily walk around the block. He jumps out of the car.

“Get in or I’ll kill you,” he says.

He drives out to a secluded area on Rock Creek Road, halfway between Placerville and Kelsey, his dark, staring eyes keeping watch in the rearview mirror. He marches them down to the dry, overgrown creek bed and orders them to remove their clothes.

He ties Pennington’s hands with her pantyhose and rapes her.

After it is over, he marches the women farther up the creek bed to a shallow depression in the ground. He orders them down into the hole and to turn their backs toward him. He shoots both women in the backs of their heads, buries them beneath a pile of rocks and leaves them for dead.

Bruised, battered and with a bullet hole in her neck, Vander Dussen miraculously survives the attack. She directs authorities to the shallow grave off Rock Creek Road, where Pennington is declared dead at the scene. Police, tipped off by Karis’ parole officer, apprehend the suspect in Sonoma County one week later.

At the trial in July 1982, the thing Vander Dussen remembers most is those dark, staring eyes in the rearview mirror. Although his public defender is aware of it, no evidence of Karis’ extensive family history of alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, sexual molestation and mental illness is presented. It takes the jury two days of deliberation to find Karis guilty and 2 1/2 days to sentence him to death.

As Karis returns to prison in August 1982, the automatic appeals process for death-penalty convictions engages. In 1988, the California Supreme Court unanimously rejects the contention that the death penalty was disproportionate punishment for his crimes and that the jury received improper instructions for applying the penalty.

In 1993, Karis finally catches a break. Eastern District Federal Judge Lawrence Karlton decides to consider more than 30 legal claims made by Karis’ attorneys. The ruling is a boon to Karis and other death-row inmates and a blow to the state’s efforts to grease the rails leading to the gas chamber. Karlton stuns prosecutors in 1998 when he overturns Karis’ death sentence, commuting it to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless a new penalty phase is conducted.

It is only the third time a death sentence has been overturned since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Heading Karis’ defense team on the federal appeal is Sacramento attorney Norman Hile, whom Bigelow credits with gathering much of the evidence used in the Karis template. Bigelow and co-counsel Bailey take on the case in 2004, and by the time they bring it to trial in April of this year, millions in taxpayer dollars have been spent.

All of if for nothing, as it turns out.

Just before the trial begins, Karis, seated next to Bigelow at the defense table, turns to the attorney and says, “Mike, I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to have to go Faretta.” Faretta refers to legal precedent that grants a defendant the right to act as his own attorney. Karis has just fired his defense team.

Bigelow still grimaces at the memory. He should have seen it coming.

“I wasn’t smart enough to hear it the first times we met,” he says. “If he said it to me once, he must have said it to me 100 times. I’d go down to San Quentin and talk to him, he’d call me on the phone and I’d talk to him. He would say to me, ‘Look, you can present anything you want as long as I don’t have to be there. You keep me from being in that courtroom and you can present anything you want.'”

Bigelow cynically figures that Karis doesn’t want to hassle with transferring from San Quentin to the Sacramento County jail, universally known as “the worst facility in the United States.” Bigelow doesn’t understand that some secrets are so painful, they’re worth taking to the grave. He doesn’t really hear Karis until the defendant speaks in court.

“I know everything Bigelow is going to put on,” Karis tells the judge. “I can’t live it again.”

Bigelow’s eyes well up recalling the scene.

“He’s crying when he’s saying this, and they’re not false tears,” he says hoarsely. “That is what he’s been saying to me for three years, and I didn’t hear it.”

Without competent attorneys to present the defense, the trial degrades into a procedural. It’s over in weeks rather than months. The jury and judge send Karis back to death row. The loss weighs heavily on Bigelow, even though it’s through no fault of his own.

“We’re going to execute a man,” he says simply. “We all lose.”

As what would have been a five-hour Power Point presentation in court comes to an end, a photograph of a smiling, innocent 6-year-old boy fills the screen: James Karis Jr.

“So, that’s what we theoretically would have gotten into the jury room,” Bigelow sighs. “I’d ask if this might have something to do with why James Karis is who he is, and explain, without excusing, why we are here. If it does, he should go back to prison for the rest of his life and not be executed.”

He pauses, as if he has once again convinced himself.

“And you know what?” he smiles. “I don’t think they would have killed him."


James Leslie Karis Jr.



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