A frightening moment at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit this morning as Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ortega appeared to experience symptoms of a cardiac event during a capital case argument. Ortega was administered oxygen and taken by gurney to an ambulance. He appeared conscious and alert while departing, and a spokeswoman for the AG's office said he's expected to be OK.
Ortega, 50, was nearing the end of rebuttal in a 32-year-old capital case, Walker v. Martel, calmly listing the aggravating circumstances outlined by the California Supreme Court, when he appeared to grow short of breath and asked for a short break. After a drink of water, Ortega told the court he wasn't well and asked to submit the case. "I hate to do this," he apologized.
Two of Ortega's opponents, Douglas Young and Nanci Clarence, hurried across the courtroom to help, with Young helping Ortega lie down. Judges Barry Silverman and Susan Graber summoned medical help, removing their robes and coming down from the bench. At one point Judge Graber had to re-engage the courtroom audio system to tell Judge Ronald Gould, who was appearing by satellite linkup, that the post-argument conference would be delayed until help arrived.
Paramedics, who had been told that Ortega was experiencing chest pain and a rapid pulse, arrived in about 10 minutes and the deputy AG was whisked to an ambulance.
Ortega had been urging the Ninth Circuit to reinstate a death judgment against Marvin Pete Walker, who was convicted in 1980 of murder during the robbery of a San Jose liquor store, plus the separate robbery, beating and sexual assault of a woman in San Jose. U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong threw out the convictions and the death sentence in 2011 because Walker had been shackled during trial, and his attorney had failed to object.
Ortega argued that the knee brace Walker wore underneath his clothes was unobtrusive, and that in any event both the guilt and penalty evidence were overwhelming, so the failure to object was not prejudicial. The judges had sounded as if they might agree with Ortega about the guilt phase evidence, but probably not about the penalty phase.