By Reggie Ellis
Two and a half years after an Exeter woman was heinously murdered, her family and friends finally saw justice complete its slow turn to come full circle.
On Jan. 13, Judge Patrick J. O'Hara sentenced David John Romero, 37, to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the rape and murder of Jewel Sutton in August 2001. The judge added 21 years in special circumstances for rape, murder and burglary and another four years for assault on a correctional officer while in jail.
Assistant District Attorney Carole Turner, who prosecuted the case, said Romero had a history of criminal activity including three felonies for petty theft, two for burglary, and two misdemeanor molestation charges -- one for attacking a woman in a church and another for a relationship with a 14-year-old girl at the age of 24 that resulted in a pregnancy. He also had 19 other misdemeanors, four of which were drug related. Turner said Romero had demonstrated a pattern of escalating violence up to last year when he assaulted a correctional officer while in custody.
"I think the judge understood that if he was ever out of prison he would commit more crimes," Turner said. "The judge also believed that while he may be mentally incompetent he did know right from wrong. Innocent people shouldn't have to encounter someone like that again."
The judge also heard emotional testimony from the family at the sentencing hearing. Sutton's nephew, Gerald Young of San Marcos, described Romero as a "wasted life" that must be "confined to the garbage dump we call prison for the rest of your days."
In a later interview, Young said, "This is an evil man. I suspect he is slow but not mentally retarded. There are a lot of slow people who don't go around committing murder. This is a case of a lack of morals rather than a lack of mind."
Young's mother was Ima Young, a long-time Exeter resident. Young moved away from Exeter when he attended college in 1951. He began by telling the judge that he and his two brothers grew up in an extended family that included his aunt Judy, the family's name for Jewel Sutton. He said he was the closest remaining relative to Jewel after her husband, John, and daughter, Charolette, had both died many years ago. He went on to talk about how he would come home from Southern California to visit with his aunt and they would discuss politics, have lunch together and "occasionally we would drive up into the foothills just to see the scenery."
Young told the court, "We can't do this any more, and this has left a real void in my life. I cannot help feeling that you, David Romero, should pay dearly for the murder of my aunt. You heartlessly, and without remorse, murdered my aunt in an unusually foul and despicable way. This violence should never happen to anyone, let alone a 92-year-old woman who was honest, caring and loving to all her acquaintances."
Young went on to talk about his family's Chickasaw Indian heritage, and how in ancient law, "criminals like Romero were handed over to the victim's relatives, who would then dispense justice." He said he was unhappy with the U.S. Supreme Court's June 20, 2002 ruling that executing developmentally disabled individuals is cruel and unusual punishment. "I can't do anything about this interpretation, so it is vitally important to me that David Romero never is allowed out of prison. He must never have one day of freedom again, ever."
Bill and Ruby Clinton, friends of Sutton, were also present throughout the lengthy court case.
"The wheels of justice turn slowly but at least some justice has finally been done," Bill said. "I would have liked to have seen him get the death penalty, but Jewel was not an eye-for-an-eye type of person. I think she would feel justice has been done. Hopefully he'll be Charlie Manson's roommate or go to Pelican Bay. It is too bad we have to pay to feed him for the rest of his life."
Romero raped and killed Sutton in her home on Aug. 11, 2001. Romero, who was Sutton's gardner, was arrested by sheriff's deputies on Aug. 21, 2001 at his mother's home. The sheriff's department reported that an angry confrontation eight years earlier made Romero a suspect in the case.
A decision on Romero's competency has been up in the air since his preliminary hearing in 2001 when he wandered around the courtroom and didn't seem to understand what was going on. Defense attorney Arthur Hampar argued that his client was not competent to stand trial. During the next two years three psychologists have argued back and forth about Romero's possible mental retardation.
Romero was found competent to stand trial after a several competency hearings last year. The prosecution offered a plea bargain, offering life imprisonment in exchange for a guilty plea to all charges. Romero pleaded guilty to all charges at a Dec. 17 pre-trial hearing.
Young said his aunt Judy was still quite active in the Exeter Catholic Church until a year or so before her death. Just a few years prior, the church named her its "Woman of the Year." Friends and family said she had a great compassion and concern for those less fortunate than her, and she volunteered to feed patients in the Exeter Hospital who could not care for themselves. She lived modestly on her Social Security income, but she gave as she could, to her church, and to particular charities, such as the Red Cloud Indian School, in South Dakota, and to the Disabled American Veterans. She was much more vigorous than many people 20 years her junior.
"If she would have died of natural causes she would have lived a full life at 92 years old," he said. "But to have her life snuffed out by this monster still makes me angry."