Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lawrence Bittaker & Roy Norris


Steve Kay was committed to seeking the death penalty for Lawrence Bittaker. In an unwitting tribute to Bittaker's jailhouse ambition, Kay declared that for sheer brutality, the crimes of Charles Manson's cultists "didn't come close" to Bittaker's rampage. Despite his experience in prosecuting rapists, murderers and every other kind of felon, Kay twice broke down weeping during Bittaker's three-week trial.

For his part, the defendant seemed to enjoy the proceedings. Bittaker had prepared for trial by writing his memoirs, fittingly titled The Last Ride. Though warned repeatedly by his attorney, Bittaker insisted on finishing the manuscript, apparently convinced that jurors would believe his assertion that Norris masterminded the operation. The gamble failed, and on February 17, 1981, Bittaker was found guilty on five murder counts and 21 other related felonies.

Lawrence Bittaker on the stand (CORBIS)
Lawrence Bittaker on the stand

California, like all other states, holds its criminal trials in stages. The first determines guilt or innocence; the second, if a defendant is convicted, determines punishment. To support a death sentence, California prosecutors must demonstrate "special circumstances" — such as slayings deemed "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity." Bittaker's personal audiotapes were replayed for the jury, which promptly recommended death.

As with Norris another probation report was generated. Bittaker's examiner wrote that "during the years this officer has been submitting evaluations to the court, he has had occasion to interview many individuals convicted of brutal crimes, but none to the extent of the one[s] for which this defendant has been convicted. During the interviews with him, although verbalizing some feeling for the teenage deaths that he has caused, there is no outward expression or emotion displayed. His total attitude was almost as if he had been able to divorce himself from the emotions felt by the major portion of society."

The report concluded that there was "little doubt that he would return to a life of crime, and possibly a life of violence" if released into society. The jury's recommended sentence clearly "would be the most permanent protection available."

The judge agreed, and Bittaker was sentenced to death on March 24, 1981.


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