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Federal court rejects death-row inmate’s appeal in 1991 Phoenix murder

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WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Monday upheld the murder conviction of David Gulbrandson in the brutal 1991 stabbing and beating death in Phoenix of his business partner and one-time girlfriend Irene Katuran.

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Gulbrandson’s claims that his trial attorney was ineffective and that the judge should not have considered inflammatory victim-impact statements from Katuran’s family at sentencing.

In a partial dissent, Judge Dorothy Nelson said the Arizona Supreme Court should have granted Gulbrandson a hearing on his claim that his attorney erred by failing to call a psychiatric expert to testify at his sentencing.

Tim Gabrielsen, the attorney representing Gulbrandson in his appeal, pointed to the dissent and said he planned to appeal Monday’s ruling.

But Susanne Blomo of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office said she was not surprised by the appeals court decision, which she believes “was the correct ruling.”

According to court documents, Gulbrandson and Katuran ran a photography business in Phoenix, and were romantically involved for about a year in 1990. But that relationship ended in January 1991, and their business relationship began to fall apart.

On Valentine’s Day, a drunken Gulbrandson tried to strangle Katuran in front of two friends, to whom he later said: “I’m going to kill her. I’m going to kill the business. I’m going to kill everything.”

Katuran got a restraining order against Gulbrandson, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections, but he was at her house on March 10, 1991, when they got into an argument. Katuran threw a pair of scissors at Gulbrandson during the argument and he “snapped,” according to court documents.

Police found Katuran the next day in her blood-stained house, with her ankles and one hand bound with electrical cords, clumps of hair ripped out, 34 stab and slicing wounds, and blunt-force injuries.

Four knives and a pair of scissors were found in the kitchen sink covered in blood and a tine from a wooden salad fork was embedded in her leg. Gulbrandson’s bloody fingerprint was found on a soda can in the house.

Katuran’s nose and seven ribs were broken and the thyroid cartilage in the front of her neck was fractured. Documents said she died from the multiple stab wounds in her back, one of which hit her liver, and the neck injury. Most, if not all, of the injuries were inflicted before death.

After the murder, Gulbrandson took Katuran’s car and drove to Nevada where he gambled in a hotel casino before heading to Montana, where he was arrested on April 3, 1991.

At trial, the defense called Dr. Martin Blinder, whose report, in part, showed that Gulbrandson had bipolar disorder, alcoholism and personality disorder – primarily narcissistic, with antisocial traits.

But a jury convicted Gulbrandson on Dec. 15, 1992, of premeditated first-degree murder and theft. He was sentenced to death on Feb. 19, 1993, after a separate hearing before a judge.

Gabrielsen said Blinder should have been called back to testify during the sentencing, when he could have spoken to Gulbrandson’s state of mind during the murder and also his potential for rehabilitation. The prosecution likely would have objected to that testimony at trial, but in a sentencing hearing it could have meant the difference between a death sentence and life in prison.

“The trial lawyer should have called back the doctor at sentencing to give those opinions that would not have been relevant at the guilt phase,” Gabrielsen said.

But Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote for the appeals court that the state Supreme Court reasonably determined Gulbrandson was not harmed by his attorney’s decision to not recall Blinder. She agreed with lower courts that the sentencing judge already knew Blinder’s opinion from his previous testimony and 1992 report, and did not need him to testify again at sentencing.

“Counsel had already adequately apprised the sentencing court of Dr. Blinder’s opinions regarding Gulbrandson’s state of mind at the time of the murder,” Ikuta wrote.

The court also rejected the argument that the sentencing judge might have been prejudiced by statements from Katuran’s parents and daughters, all of whom urged the death penalty. Ikuta wrote that, unlike a jury, a judge is presumed not be be swayed by such emotional appeals when applying the law.