By Susan Chasen
As predicted, Christina White, 33, received a 40-year sentence for killing her boyfriend Peter Paul 16 months ago at the rented Topanga home where Paul's buried body was unearthed a few weeks later by the landlord.
However, the most important factor in White's sentence apparently is not that she was convicted of second-degree murder, but that she used a gun rather than a knife, bludgeon or poisonous oleander to commit the crime.
That, according to legal defense experts, is the topsy-turvy world of California's new gun-sentencing law, signed by former Governor Pete Wilson. The new law, known as "10-20-life," went into effect last January. It adds sentencing "enhancements" that often exceed the sentence for the crime committed, and which can be used as leverage by prosecutors in seeking guilty pleas.
At a hearing on December 14 in Santa Monica, Judge Steven C. Suzukawa sentenced White to 15 years for second-degree murder, with an additional 25 years for using a gun in the killing.
Suzukawa rejected White's attorney's motion for a new trial and his request for discretion in applying the additional 25-year sentence arising from the new gun law. "Frankly, I think the sentence in this case fits the crime," said Suzukawa. And he said, "I think the evidence fits the jury's verdict."
White's attorney, Alex Kessel, had argued that the extra 25 years for using a gun, being in excess of the sentence for the crime itself, amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" and was therefore unconstitutional.
But Suzukawa rejected the argument, saying the fact that the enhancement carries more time doesn't make it "cruel and unusual punishment."
In seeking a new trial Kessel also argued that the jury should not have heard the taped cell phone conversation between White and an ex-boyfriend made a few weeks after the killing. According to Kessel, the sheriff's deputy who made the tape off a personal scanning device while working traffic for a movie shoot in Lancaster must have known he was listening to a frequency that would pick up cell phone conversations. His actions were a violation of state law against intercepting cell phone conversations, said Kessel.
But Suzukawa said Kessel was too late with his objection. He said he assumed Kessel had made a tactical decision not to oppose the tape being played.
The tape does include White speaking of Paul's violence against her and her fears for herself and her family, and this part was heard by the jury. Kessel previously had argued for including these portions if the tape were to be introduced.
Jurors, speaking after the trial, said the recording-in which White's friend expresses shock that White killed Paul while he was sleeping and White makes no audible denial of this account-eliminated doubts they might otherwise have had as to White's actions the night Paul was killed.
WHITE FAMILY REACTION
White's family, though prepared for the sentence, was still shocked and confused by it, with the use of a gun resulting in more prison time than the murder conviction. "It seems to be disproportionate, in that the enhancement is more than the murder sentence," said Barbara Blaney, White's sister.
Also, Blaney said she expected more compassion for her sister as a victim of abuse, "Not 'how stupid you are for being battered?'
"Christina has never been violent," she added.
According to White's mother, her daughter is thinking about her appeal at this point, not the 40 years.
"There's a side of her that's so giving and so loving," said JoAnn White. "This has been a nightmare. It's been a nightmare for the whole family."
White did not appear at the sentencing hearing. But Kessel read a letter from her into the record. It expressed regret that the lifestyle she and Paul were living caused pain for both families, but she insisted, "I did not murder anyone...I will not stop fighting for my freedom which I feel I deserve."
White was also sentenced to four years concurrent sentence-two years for cultivating marijuana and two years and $10,000 restitution for her guilty plea in an embezzlement case. Another theft charge was dropped.
APPEALS-WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?
Kessel said he will not be handling an appeal of White's case, but that an appellate lawyer will be assigned to review the case.
According to Albert Menaster, deputy public defender with
the Appellate Branch of the Los Angeles Public Defenders Officer, the courts
continually uphold the right of legislatures to determine sentences against
constitutional arguments of cruel and unusual punishment. "Everybody just
jams through these wacko bills," said Menaster. "That's the law everyone
According to Menaster, the United States Supreme Court has upheld a life sentence for a token amount of drugs.
"Who's saying, 'Stop! There's something wrong with this picture?' Nobody in government," says Menaster. "It seems incomprehensible to us.
"It may as well be '100-300-900' and then California will be like Texas where people are sentenced to 4,000 years," says Menaster of arbitrary, catchy-sounding sentencing laws like "10-20-life" and "three strikes."
The gun law adds 10 years for wielding a gun during commission of a serious crime, 20 for firing it and 25 to life for injuring or killing someone.
Over time, as jurors become aware of these laws, they tend to produce strange results in trials, according to Menaster, like convictions for crimes obviously involving a gun, but acquittals on the gun use charge.
Already, says Menaster, prosecutors are avoiding bringing out information about a defendant's past for fear jurors will worry that it's his or her third strike and not want to convict. "They don't want the jurors to think about what's really going on here," said Menaster.
In the White case, it is likely the jurors were not aware of the sentencing implications of finding that a gun was used. With that in view, the jury's deliberations over the details in the case seem diminished in importance when compared with the relatively unquestionable fact that a gun was involved in the crime.
All the jury's considerations of the testimony-whether White gave Paul Valium before shooting him, the effect that Paul's violence against White may have had, White's credibility-seem almost tangential in light of the impact of the gun law.
While these sentencing laws are surviving challenges, Menaster said the taped cell phone conversation may be a real issue for appeal. According to Menaster, taping a conversation is illegal without the consent of all parties.
By Andrea Makshanoff
Surviving the extremely adverse conditions of a nuclear holocaust, plucky souls find inspiration and a new and uplifting approach to life. Doesn't the description sound familiar-a bit like we hardy Topanga souls, particularly in our times of flood or fire?
There is a novelist, a UCLA professor and recent resident, who has noticed our collective, plucky character. She is Carolyn See, and in many ways she has enshrined the irrepressible Topanga temperament and the sheltering nature of the Canyon itself in her 1986 novel, GOLDEN DAYS.
On Wednesday, January 19 at the Community House, the Topanga Historical Society invites the townsfolk to listen to See as she shares with us her 32 years of living in Topanga, and how this life figures into her nationally acclaimed writings. Her talk will start at 8 p.m. after a potluck dinner at 7 p.m.
See's sojourn in Topanga began in 1964 when she and her second husband, Tom Sturak, bought the first house they saw in Topanga--a 23-foot square Circle Trail cabin their friend Mark said "only a crazy person would buy." After scraping together the $12,000 purchase price, the couple moved in with their children.
"When we first moved in there were literally holes
in the walls, with one wall made out of orange crates. With a kerosene water
heater and no gas, we cooked on a hot plate," See says. "It was kind
of primitive and fun. There was no road to the house, just a tramline and a
switch-back path." Sturak still lives in the now-remodeled house with his
present wife, Jackie Hanson.
See started to seriously write in that house on Circle Trail one year after arriving in Topanga. In THE REST IS DONE WITH MIRRORS, published in 1970, See used her house setting as a sort of twist on a rural romantic scene--one with dry twigs rather than lush grass.
Timing, and the location, both encouraged her efforts. Having just given birth to her second child, she was taking some time off from teaching composition and literature courses full-time at UCLA. With free time and the familial knowledge of one failed writer's regrets (her father's), See knew if she did not start, she would bore people for the rest of her life with the story of her failure.
The sheer isolation of Topanga--especially at a house without
drive-up access--encouraged her writing: "It was such a production to go
anywhere that you are much better off just staying at home. It's easy to walk
down that path, but then, of course, you have to walk back up. It's very isolating,
and this is very good if you are a writer. And a lot of quiet--so it's easy
See's earlier efforts at writing had produced very bad short stories which were always rejected, she says. "I just didn't know what I was doing. My idea of literature then had something to do with Virginia Woolf and absolutely nothing to do with California."
One could say See was literally baptized into Topanga life when she was seven months pregnant--"too stupid" she says, to realize they had to clear brush. A County crew was sent to do the job.
But when the crew caught the mountain close to the house on fire, See says she knew enough to get on the roof with a hose. "I was on the roof when the plane came over, and I saw all the firemen sit down and cover their heads. But I looked up to see what was going on, and of course, they dropped the Phoschek (fire retardant) on me.
"I was bright red for a couple of weeks. The whole house was dyed red, the patio was red, and I was pink for quite a while.
"Every morning we'd come outside and there would be a fireman standing in our patio saying, 'You do understand why we had to do that?'"
See's autobiography, DREAMING: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, describes the '60s decade and how it felt in Topanga. It was her favorite decade--and a wonderful time--but it had many destructive and hard aspects, she says. "If you had to be anywhere in the '60s, Topanga was the place. Once my dad came up and we went down to the Center where a waitress was wearing a see-through blouse--she'd forgotten to wear a bra. He would see these enormous breasts going right in front of his head while she leaned in, serving chicken livers with sour cream, and he would say, 'Oh, my God, I'm in heaven at last.' Topanga was this kind of place where you thought 'I'm in heaven at last.'"
Living next door on Circle Trail to Joann Lopez, who made
unique and beautiful dresses and shirts, they and their friends "dressed
like kings and queens."
"She was making hippie clothing before people ever knew there were hippies. We had these wonderful clothes and wonderful food, and we'd have party after party with hundreds of people. Sometimes they'd get a little wasted and couldn't make the turn on the switch back trail down, and they'd come back covered in weeds and foxtails."
After 10 years on Circle Trail and a divorce from Sturak, See moved to a newly built house on Hodgson Circle in the Topanga Skyline area of Old Canyon where life was clearly different. She agrees with old-timer Marge Dehr who once told her that Old Canyon is the high desert of the Canyon: "It's more of a desert rat mentality up there--it's tougher, hotter, and with touches of Barstow," See says.
Described by See as a "sweet little house at the edge of a cliff," this setting served as refuge from nuclear holocaust for the GOLDEN DAYS family group who for several years, until the group makes a final pilgrimage to Topanga Beach to join other survivors, leaves it only to get water from the creek.
Very near the flash point of the 1993 fire (the home next door was destroyed), See says she lost sight of her house in the smoke and the flames and experienced it burning down without having to go through it. Accepting what seemed the inevitable, she says she thought, 'Oh, thank God, I'll never have to clean out the garage!' But she says of course it was all still there when the smoke lifted.
"I experienced that fire as the worst fire. It was so devious--going down to the coast, then coming back up, and changing direction all the time. It was so close to where we lived that our only warning was a helicopter coming over and telling us to get out. And of course, all of our neighbors stayed and put me to shame, but I was a coward. But there is also a time where you just say 'I've seen this movie too often.' I'd moved things in and out of cars so often."
Like the proverbial Topanga resident who rolls with whatever punch nature provides--fire, flood, or mud--the GOLDEN DAYS group endures radiation sickness, isolation and deprivation with a serenity seemingly gained from countless natural disasters. Their approach (and See's) is "Do you expect us to be impressed when these things go past here all the time?"
"Part of that book was written just to talk back to the people who are in the profession of scaring you to death and to just say 'Oh please, we are not impressed. It's only destruction. It's only doomsday, so get over it,'" See says.
One such alarmist was her daughter's Topanga Elementary
sixth-grade teacher, See says, who "would scare the socks off these little
kids by saying 'Doomsday is coming so there's no point in going to school since
we'll be dead in a couple of years anyway.'" Says the little girl in GOLDEN
DAYS after the nuclear detonation, "This is going to make Mr. Russo very
In her writings See says she has been exploring what comprises our earthly paradises--why they cannot be maintained, and how they turn hellish and then paradisiacal once again.
"Topanga is a paradise except for when God gets mad and (then) it's doomsday. But it certainly isn't ordinary, and that's what I was trying to get. There is so much difference between living up there and living in civilization. I'm very, very glad I had the chance to live in Topanga as long as I did."
About a year and a half ago See moved to the Palisades after 32 fruitful years in Topanga--a move she attributes partly to the 1993 fire and partly to her macular degeneration, which caused her to see more than one center line when she drove down the S-curves. She lost her nerve, she says.
See's goal, before she becomes "a dead person," is to have geographically "mapped" all of Los Angeles with her books. Though there is a bit of Topanga in most of her books, GOLDEN DAYS is the only pure Topanga novel. Her next will cover central Los Angeles, Monterey Park and Marina del Rey.
Recently See sold the film rights of her 1999 novel, THE HANDYMAN. With the extra money, she has established a UCLA endowment to help students who are working on dissertations on southern California literature--an amazing, yet often overlooked literature, she says.
"Along with the snobbism about the movies, we tend to think of culture as an Oxford blue shirt, tweed shirt, khaki pants and a pipe. But of course that's not the way culture is out here.
"You have to live where your material is (even though) it keeps you away from Harvard, Yale and New York City. But where your material is the most important thing."
It is no surprise then that after near one-third century of Canyon living, See has memorialized our beloved Topanga Canyon and its characters in her writings. Come to the Topanga Historical Society meeting, 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 19 at the Community House, and perhaps you'll find your character--in composite, of course.