Death Penalty Paused Gov. Newsom’s moratorium affects fate of four local death row inmates

San Quentin State Prison | Adobe Stock

By Joe Livernois

Four California death row inmates sentenced by Monterey County judges will get a reprieve after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive moratorium on executions Wednesday.

They are among 737 people on death row from throughout California. Santa Cruz County has no inmate on death row. The local inmates include Joseph Manibusan, 41; Kenneth Bivert, 49; Ronald Moore, 68, and Kristin Hughes, 57.

Meanwhile, an official for the Monterey County District Attorney’s office said that, based on Newsom’s order, they will review its decision to prosecute Charles Holifield as a capital case. Holifield is charged with the 1998 murder of Christina Williams, whose body was found in a shallow grave in old Fort Ord. Long a suspect, Holifield was arrested and pleaded not guilty in 2017. The District Attorney’s office announced last year that it would seek the death penalty if Holifield is convicted.

“We could continue to pursue it,” said Berkley Brannon, chief assistant district attorney. “But we’re not going to speculate now about what we’re going to do in light of Gov. Newsom’s action. But we definitely need to review how we’re going to proceed.”

The governor’s office said Newsom’s order includes the immediate closure of the state’s execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison but does not otherwise change any existing convictions or sentences. It said no death row inmates will be released.

“Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure,” Newsom said in a written statement. “It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute, irreversible and irreparable in the event of a human error.”

Brannon said his office is “disappointed” by Newsom’s announcement. The four inmates on death row from Monterey County are “the worst of the worst,” he said. “They are on death row after years of litigation. It is rare that we pursue death penalty cases in Monterey County, and  when we do it’s for what we believe are credible reasons.”

The following are accounts of the crimes the four Monterey County inmates committed that landed them on death row:

Joseph Manibusan was convicted in the shooting deaths of two women on Monterey’s Wharf No. 2 during a drug-fueled “thrill killing.” According to testimony, he and a couple of others were on their second day of a methamphetamine high on Jan. 30, 1998, when they pulled up to Priya Mathews and Jennifer Aninger. The two were shot to death after they failed to respond to orders to turn over their money. Mathews was dead at the scene, while Aninger suffered brain damage.

Mathews was 35 years old and Aninger was 27. They were both students at what was then called the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

The man who first pulled the trigger, Norman Willover, was a juvenile at the time of the crime. After the initial shooting, Manibusan reportedly told Willover that he wanted to “have his turn” at the shooting, so they drove around Salinas and Seaside until they found Frances Olivo walking along a sidewalk in Seaside. Manibusan pulled over, got Olivo’s attention and pumped eight or nine more bullets into her while she begged for her life.

Manibusan was convicted and sentenced to death later that year after prosecutors introduced evidence of Manibusan’s long history of violence, threats and probation violations, including evidence that he had repeatedly beat up the mother of his son.

After years of appeal based on his allegations of jury misconduct, his case was eventually heard by the California Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction and his sentence in December 2013.

Ronald Moore was 47 years old when he was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of Nicole Carnahan, his 11-year-old next-door neighbor in a subdivision north of Salinas.

Nicole was last seen exiting the school bus near her home shortly after 3 p.m. on March 4, 1998. According to testimony, Nicole’s mother returned from work a couple of hours later and saw that the house had been ransacked. When she exited the back door to try to find Nicole, she saw Moore fleeing from the back yard. When she asked Moore what happened to her daughter, Moore reportedly responded by saying, “I didn’t do it.”

After sheriff’s deputies were summoned, Nicole’s body was found stuffed between her bed and her bedroom wall. She had suffered numerous wounds, including a four-inch slash wound to her neck that severed her jugular vein and carotid artery, as well as a fractured skull.

Moore told investigators that he could not have possibly killed the girl because he was physically impaired. He also said he had seen two “Mexican” men hanging around the house that afternoon. But a search of his mobile home uncovered fresh blood on a broken cane, blood on a light switch and on a pair of gloves. DNA analysis identified the blood as the victim’s.

A jury found Moore guilty of the murder, ruling that the homicide was carried out in the commission of a burglary. His conviction and sentence were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011.

Kristin Hughes was sentenced to death in 1990 in the death of Kim Hickman, a masseuse from Pacific Grove. He was also convicted of sodomy, burglary and robbery.

According to testimony, Hughes was sent home from a construction job site by his boss when he arrived at work impaired. He apparently returned to his apartment, located downstairs from Hickman’s. According to testimony, Hickman was cleaning out the apartment because she was moving elsewhere on the Peninsula.

Another neighbor checked the apartment later that evening after water started seeping in from an upstairs apartment. He saw Hickman’s body from a window and called police. She had been stabbed numerous times.

During the investigation, Hughes’ fingerprints were found at the crime scene. They also found a check that a client had given to Hickman by a customer the morning of her death. The check had been altered and cashed by Hughes at a nearby Alpha Beta grocery store, several hours after the victim’s death.

After Hughes’ trial, a jury convicted him after two hours of deliberation.The state Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence on Jab. 28, 2002.

Kenneth Bivert was sentenced to death by a Monterey County judge in 2001 after the murder of Leonard Swartz, a fellow prisoner in Salinas Valley State Prison on Nov. 23, 1996. Bivert had been serving a 52-year-to-life sentence for his part in three homicides in Yolo County in 1987, killing three fishermen on two separate days along the banks of the Sacramento River.

According to testimony, Bivert had earlier told fellow inmates that Swartz was a child molester who “didn’t belong on the face of the earth for what he did and he needs to be dealt with.” He also said that his mission while in prison was to “take care of scum” who don’t deserve to be alive for their crimes. An avowed white supremacist, he said that he believes that the “white race” should take care  of “their own.”

Bivert stabbed Swartz with a shank while the victim was playing dominoes with another inmate. Swartz survived for 17 days until he suffered an epileptic seizure and died.

The state Supreme Court upheld the verdict and the sentence for Bivert on July 11, 2011.

A year later, Bivert sent a letter to Felix Cortez, a reporter for KSBW-8 in Salinas, in which Bivert expressed opposition to a statewide ballot measure to repeal the death penalty.

According to the letter sent from death row at San Quentin state prison, Bivert said he was a “firm supporter” of the death penalty. “There are many crimes deserving of capital punishment,” he wrote. “If California voters got rid of the death penalty, society will see further increases in horrific and violent crimes against innocent citizens. This is a terrible and true fact.”

Referring to Bivert on Wednesday, Brannon of the District Attorney’s office called him a “death penalty opponent’s worst nightmare. I mean, I don’t know what to do with a guy like that.”

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.