Three years after he struck and killed California Highway Patrol officer Douglas “Scott” Russell, David Charles Zanon was sentenced to death Monday morning by El Dorado County Superior Court Judge James R. Wagoner.
The sentencing came three months after jurors recommended Zanon, 41, be put to death for his first-degree murder conviction.
Several uniformed CHP officers were present at the sentencing, as was Russell’s mother, Betty Elliott. Lynn Russell, the officer’s widow, did not attend.
Judge Wagoner’s announcement came after he addressed two motions filed by defense attorneys David Brooks and Mark Millard.
The first motion called for a new trial for Zanon, claiming the jury’s verdict was contrary to the evidence presented. The motion also alleged inadmissible evidence was introduced by deputy district attorney Joe Alexander and District Attorney Vern Pierson.
After reviewing case files Judge Wagoner denied the first motion.
The second called for a modification of the verdict.
David Brooks, Zanon’s public defender, asked the court to use its perspective to spare Zanon from execution.
“We’re in a position where Mr. Zanon did something absolutely horrible that deserves punishment,” he said. “Mr. Zanon has demonstrated himself to not completely be without humanity.”
Given the opportunity for rebuttal, Alexander told the court that Zanon had continually used his horrific childhood as an excuse for his criminal lifestyle.
“He’s led his adult life not as a victim, but as the victimizer,” said Alexander.
The second defense motion was also denied by Judge Wagoner, who said the special circumstances surrounding Zanon’s crime — the murder of a peace officer to avoid arrest — show Zanon knew what he was doing when he killed the officer in 2007.
“Evidence does not show (Zanon) was unable to understand the criminal conduct of his actions,” said Wagoner.
The judge needed several minutes to review reports on Zanon’s criminal background filed by the county Probation Department. After returning to the bench, Wagoner allowed individuals to address the court with any last-minute thoughts or issues.
Zanon, who did not testify in his own defense during the guilt or penalty phases of his trial, spoke from his seat at the defense table, shackled and clad in an orange jail jumpsuit.
The defendant cleared his throat several times and slowly and quietly spoke, fighting back tears.
“I am very sorry for my actions,” he said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t think about what I did.”
Zanon then apologized to the Russell’s mother and widow for the pain he caused and said he accepted the jury’s verdict.
“Life outside has not been good for me,” he said. “I was bad; I will not lie. I did steal. I did use drugs. But I did love everybody.”
Despite his criminal acts, Zanon said he “hated” the concept of hate and empathized with the victim’s family.
“I feel the pain,” he said. “I see the pain. I wish there was something I could do but there’s not.”
After Zanon’s apology, Wagoner sentenced the defendant to death and ordered him to San Quentin State Prison’s death row.
An appeal to the state’s Supreme Court will be automatically filed on Zanon’s behalf.
Betty Elliott, Russell’s mother, said after the sentencing, “I am finally taking a breath. I’m hurt, I’m angry, I’m sad. I’m just grateful that (my son has) been avenged in some small fashion.”
Elliott said she wanted to address Zanon but decided against it at the last minute.
“I had no intention of berating the killer,” she said.
Elliott expressed thanks to the District Attorney’s Office and the court staff and praised the jurors, several of whom were on hand Monday, for “getting it right.”
Elliott also spoke about Zanon’s apology.
“I thank him for the apology,” she said. “I’m sorry that he didn’t come to realize his behavior was going to get him in trouble until it was too late. My son paid the penalty.”
District Attorney Pierson praised the efforts of his office, particularly deputy district attorneys Joe Alexander and Jamie Verwayen, as well as investigator Richard Pesce.
“It’s a horrible, tragic thing that happened that day,” said Pierson. “But this is the best possible outcome given the circumstances.”
On July 31, 2007, Zanon, in a car full of stolen goods, led officers on a high-speed chase down eastbound Highway 50. Russell positioned himself in the center median near the Ponderosa Road overpass and deployed a spike strip moments before he was struck by Zanon’s vehicle.
Prosecutors, led by Pierson and Alexander, said Zanon was both homicidal and suicidal and determined to not return to prison.
Brooks and Millard, Zanon’s defense team, countered, saying their client acted out of fear and was in the throes of a methamphetamine binge simply; he swerved to avoid the spike strip, not hit the officer.