The responsibility 12 Kern County jurors bore wasn’t an easy one — that was clearly reflected Wednesday when they couldn’t unanimously decide whether a former Kern County Sheriff’s deputy should be executed or be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
David Keith Rogers was sentenced to die in 1988 by a late Kern County Superior Court judge for murdering pregnant Tracie Clark, 15, and Janine Benintende, 21, who worked as prostitutes in Kern County. California Supreme Court judges overturned Rogers’ death penalty and remanded his case back to Kern County to be rehashed. Rogers’ first-degree and second-degree murder convictions stood, but jurors had to decide what constitutes justice for 76-year-old Rogers: death or life in prison.
After roughly five days of deliberations and considering more than 200 pieces of evidence, jurors were initially split into three camps: Five people sought one decision, another five claimed a different verdict and two others had a separate stance from these two groups, according to Chief Assistant Public Defender Tanya Richard. It’s not clear what perspectives each batch adopted.
Jurors went to deliberate again and ultimately 10 people sought death and two people thought Rogers should spend his life in prison.
“The jury did vote many times,” considered all the evidence and carefully applied the law, Richard said. She added she was excited and relieved to know some jurors understood it was not appropriate at this stage to impose the death penalty.
The Kern County District Attorney’s Office could retry Rogers. Prosecutors haven’t made a decision, but a hearing was set for May 1 to determine next steps, according to Assistant District Attorney Joseph Kinzel. Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer and Chief Trial Deputy Eric Smith retried Rogers during the nearly month-and-a-half trial.
The jurors who deliberated and returned with their final decision seemed “very firm in their convictions,” Kinzel added.
California hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006 and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in 2019 halting all executions.
Kinzel declined to comment on whether California’s lengthy period since its last execution and Rogers’ old age justify another retrial because the case is still pending.
Rogers has admitted to killing Clark. He denied murdering Benintende in an initial interview with deputies investigating her murder, but has since said he doesn’t remember who she is.
Prosecutor Smith cast Rogers as a man who sought revenge against prostitutes after one accused him of sexual battery and caused him to be fired as a deputy. Rogers was eventually rehired.
Benintende died in 1986, and Rogers said he shot Clark in 1987 after she threatened to report him.
Rogers solicited Clark’s prostitution services and was receiving a sex act when an argument began between the two, according to previous reporting. Clark began arguing with him and hitting him, which led Rogers to shoot her multiple times.
Rogers didn’t show remorse after murdering the two women while causing them to suffer, and the deputy violated the law enforcement code of ethics to protect and serve, Smith said during his closing arguments. That’s why prosecutors believed he should be sentenced to California’s highest punishment.
Public defender Richard noted emotional trauma battered Rogers’ mental health as a child growing up. He did feel remorse for murdering two women and has rehabilitated his ways after spending decades in prison, she added during her closing arguments.
On Wednesday, Richard said Rogers has been a role model inmate for 35 years, never misstepping or exacting violence in prison. This shows he’s changed throughout all this time in prison, she argued during her closing arguments.
He’s transformed into an incredibly meek person and isn’t in good health anymore, she added Wednesday.
Rogers will spend the rest of his life in prison and Richard said Wednesday she hopes prosecutors strongly consider letting him do so, rather than retrying the case.
You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.