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Trial in Killing of Riverside Police Officer off to a Rough Start for the Defense

Riverside Police officer Ryan Bonaminio was killed by gunshot wounds in November of 2010. The suspect in the crime, Earl Ellis began trial today. The opening statement by his defense attorney caused me some great concern for the outcome of his case. The Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. Earl’s defense attorney conceded the death by gunshot wounds and the fact that it was committed by Earl. The defense conceded that the death was a murder but disputed the allegation that it was premeditated.

A first degree murder of a police officer carries a potential death sentence. The approach of this defense attorney appears to be to try and spare her client’s life by avoiding a first degree murder conviction. This is a noble attempt by a lawyer who works for the Capital Defense Unit in Riverside County. I wish her the best of luck in her trial, however, I fear her attempt may backfire.

If Ms. O’Rane, the defense attorney is successful and gets the jury to return a verdict of second degree murder, the defendant will still, likely serve the rest of his life in prison. This, to me, poses a great ethical and moral question: Does a lawyer try to win the case or save the human life? I believe that my job as a defense lawyer is to try to win, in each and every case. What is a win? A win is a dismissal or acquittal of all charges. What if the client is charged in a capital case in Riverside County? A county likely to actually seek the death penalty in the case of a murdered police officer? Does a win still mean the same thing? As a defense attorney in Los Angeles County, my views are likely quite different than those of Ms. O’Rane. I would likely ask myself, should I seek to save my client’s “life” even though the result may still mean that my client spends the rest of his life in prison? Or, should I try for the win, even if it is likely futile, to attempt to “win the case”? As I go to sleep tonight, I am thankful this is not my case and not my decision.

These are very difficult questions that a veteran defense lawyer faces every day. To attorney O’Rane, I wish you the best of luck and hope you do save your client’s life, even if it means that he spends years in prison. To the family of Officer Bonaminio, I extend my sympathies and I hope justice is served with the caveat that I am opposed to the death penalty.

If you have questions about this or any other criminal law matter, please contact me: (818) 783-5700