The California Supreme Court in San Francisco today unanimously upheld the death sentence of an ex-Marine convicted of fatally stabbing a Livermore nurse in her home 26 years ago. Richard Tully, 53, was sentenced to death in Alameda County Superior Court in 1992 after being convicted of the 1986 murder and assault with intent to commit rape of Shirley Olsson, 59. The jury also found a special circumstance of murder committed during a burglary, which allowed the imposition of the death penalty. Olsson, a nurse at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Livermore, was killed during the night of July 24, 1986.
A co-worker found her nude body in her Livermore home the next morning. Olsson had been stabbed 23 times. Her purse, containing no money, and the knife used in the murder were found in a golf course next to her house. At the time, Tully was a 27-year-old unemployed heavy equipment operator who had previously served in the Marines. He had recently been staying at his mother’s boyfriend’s house two doors down from Olsson’s, and continued to use that address as his mailing address. Tully was arrested in March 1987 after a Livermore police officer who stopped him on suspicion of driving with a suspended license and possessing methamphetamine noticed that his license showed an address two houses away from Olsson’s.
A fingerprint check then showed a fingerprint and palm print of Tully’s on the knife. In an interview with police, Tully admitted he had entered Olsson’s house while being drunk and tried to have sex with her, but alleged the killer was another man nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.” The state high court rejected a series of appeal claims by Tully, including an argument that there was insufficient evidence that he burglarized the house with the intent to commit rape or theft. Justice Marvin Baxter wrote, “The jury could easily have discarded defendant’s implausible invention of Doubting Thomas’s role in the crime and concluded that defendant himself went to Olsson’s residence and broke in to steal drugs or property.”
The court also turned down Tully’s claim that the prosecutor in his trial, during closing arguments to the jury, improperly read Old Testament quotations that appear to support a death penalty. The prosecutor put four of the quotations on a chart entitled “The Bible Sanctions Capital Punishment.” Tully’s then-defense attorneys did not object to the quotations, but during their own closing arguments responded by reading other Old and New Testament passages that take an opposite position and stating that Buddhism does not condone the death penalty. The court said the prosecutor’s references were allowable because defense attorneys had failed to object and because the prosecutor had told jurors that secular law is paramount over religious doctrine.
“To the extent the prosecutor’s argument merely admonished that a juror’s religious beliefs need not stand in the way of imposing death, the argument was permissible,” Baxter wrote. In a precedent set in another case in 2006, the high court said prosecutors may not argue that biblical authority requires a death penalty, but may contend that choosing a death penalty under secular law does not contradict biblical doctrine. James Thomson, a lawyer for Tully in the appeal, said he could not comment on the decision because he plans to ask the court for a rehearing, in a filing due by Aug. 14. He said that if the court declines that request, he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomson said he has also filed a separate habeas corpus petition with the state Supreme Court, claiming that Tully’s conviction should be set aside because of alleged misconduct by prosecutors and alleged incompetence of defense attorneys at the trial.