The California Supreme Court overturned the murder convictions and death sentence Monday for a man found guilty of murdering three people in San Diego nearly 40 years ago.
Billy Ray Waldon was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, as well as arson, robbery, sex crimes and other offenses for an alleged crime spree committed across a two-week period in December 1985.
In a ruling issued Monday, the California Supreme Court said that the trial court judge improperly allowed Waldon to represent himself at trial.
A different judge previously denied Waldon’s request to represent himself after finding he “had a mental disorder that prevented him from rationally perceiving his circumstances, appreciating the risks and consequences of self-representation, and appropriately formulating and presenting a defense,” according to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
But a second judge granted Waldon’s request “without considering (the other judge’s) denial or the evidence on which it was based.”
The California Supreme Court found that Waldon did not understand or properly appreciate the risks that came with representing himself and this “deprived Waldon of the assistance of counsel throughout his criminal trial.”
According to the prosecution’s case, Waldon shot and killed Dawn Ellerman in her home, which was set ablaze. Ellerman’s teenage daughter, Erin Ellerman, also died in the home of smoke inhalation.
He was also convicted of fatally shooting Gordon Wells, a man who was working on his car. A neighbor who heard the gunfire was also shot by Waldon, but survived, according to prosecutors.
The neighbor identified Waldon as the shooter, according to the ruling, which states Waldon was also identified by an eyewitness who said she saw him running out of the burning Ellerman house.
Waldon was also identified by a woman who said he broke into her apartment and raped her. Others alleged they had been robbed by Waldon.
During this time frame, police pursued a man in a car registered to Waldon. The driver later abandoned the vehicle and inside it was property belonging to the Ellermans, the woman who was raped and the robbery victims. Waldon was arrested in June 1986.
In his defense, Waldon alleged he framed by federal agents who sought to “thwart his efforts to promote world peace, spread new languages, and advance Cherokee autonomy.” He alleged that CIA agents were monitoring him and that he had recorded conversations with one of these agents that could have proved his innocence, but the tapes were destroyed in a fire.
He alleged that in December 1985, federal agents abducted him and beat him while condemning his “promotion of Indian autonomy,” but he was able to escape. After reading a news article that stated he was wanted for murder, Waldon hid out “in a crawl space under a house in Imperial Beach, fearing that he would be convicted despite his innocence if he turned himself in,” he claimed.
— City News Service