By Robert J. Hansen
Woodland, CA -Robert Blaiser was the trial attorney in the Death Penalty case against Lionel Tholmer filed by the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office in Yolo County Superior Court in 1993, concerning the murder of Cynthia Sparpana and the abduction of her female infant child.
The following is an edited version of a declaration from Blaiser in the case of People v Lionell Tholmer.
That year, Lionel Tholmer was convicted of murdering Cynthia Sparpana, whose body was found on November 5, 1985. It was also alleged that her 3-year-old child was abducted.
“In my professional opinion, Lionel Tholmer is completely innocent of all charges filed against him in the Yolo County murder and abduction case,” Blaiser said. “I can truthfully say that in my over 50 years of practice, this is the only case where I feel totally confident in making that statement.”
One of the key witnesses against Tholmer was Lieutenant John Kane of the Sacramento Police Department.
Kane injected himself into the case early on and was a primary factor leading to the conviction of Mr. Tholmer in the Yolo County case according to court documents.
Kane alleged that Tholmer made incriminating statements to him about the case which Tholmer vehemently denies making, according to Blaiser.
Blaiser said both the testimonial evidence and the physical evidence in the case against Tholmer were extremely weak.
“It is my belief that it was the testimony of detective Kane that was the primary reason for Mr. Tholmer’s conviction,” Blaiser said.
Blaiser later became aware that Judge James Long of the Sacramento Superior Court had made a finding that Kane had lied under oath in a different case.
Tholmer, now 63 years old, has been in custody since December of 1987.
“I believe that Lionel Tholmer should either be granted a new trial or released on humanitarian grounds,” Blaiser said.
Blaiser and his co-counsel, attorney Steven Cilenti, along with the district attorney at the time, Charles Vancourt, had numerous informal chats with Judge James Stevens during the trial.
Judge Stevens was known as a very conservative jurist in Yolo County. At one point he remarked that this was his first death penalty case. He stated, only half-jokingly in my opinion, that if Mr. Tholmer was convicted, he was looking forward to “frying” him, Blaiser said.
Because the evidence of guilt was so thin, Blaiser decided not to make a motion for a mistrial which would mean having to start completely over again in another trial.
“My failure to make a mistrial motion is one that I regret to this day,” Blaiser said.
Blaiser specifically recalls that the foreman of the jury overslept for the two days during deliberations and the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department was dispatched to wake him up to continue deliberations.
“This suggests to me that with respect to the foreman, at least, he did not seriously consider whether we had raised a reasonable doubt about the actual evidence in the case,” Blaiser said.
Following the trial Blaiser made a motion for the judge to vacate the jury’s finding for the lack of evidence of guilt.
Judge Stevens denied that motion.
However, he agreed with me that the evidence was so weak that he ruled that the death verdict was inappropriate and he sentenced Tholmer to life without the possibility of parole instead of death.
“I believe he realized that a death verdict would put a certain finality to this case that was not deserved,” Blaiser said.
Blaiser also believes race was a key factor in Tholmer’s conviction.
Tholmer is an African American. Cynthia Sparpana and her child were Caucasian.
“My sense at the time, as well as my sense now, is that race played a critical role in Mr. Thomer’s conviction,” Blaiser said.
Because of the passage of time and his age, his recollections of the details of this case are understandably dim.
“I do, however, have enough recollections of this case to submit this under oath declaration,” Blaiser said.
Tholmer’s case is under review in a Placer court and has an evidentiary hearing scheduled for April 20.
Robert Blaiser is 77 years old and has been the counsel in numerous high-profile criminal cases, including People v. O. J. Simpson, People v. Kazinski (Unibomber), People v. Phil Spector (Wall of Sound music producer) and People v. Andrew Luster (heir to the Max Factor fortune). He has been either lead counsel or associate counsel in numerous additional death penalty cases throughout his career.
He has been an attorney since January of 1971. He spent the first approximately 16 years of his career as a prosecutor in the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office with later employment as the Director of Enforcement with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.