Friday, January 27, 2006
Death Sentence Upheld for Lynwood Man Convicted of Killing Three in Monterey Park Drug Robbery
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a Lynwood convicted of three murders in what prosecutors said was an intended drug rip-off at a Monterey Park motel in 1988.
Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the court, said that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria Chavez, now a justice of this district’s Court of Appeal, did not err in sentencing Eric Lamont Hinton to the maximum penalty for the deaths of Tenoa L. Stevenson, Albert Brown Jr., and Landis Barnes.
The three men were killed at the Best Western Monterey Park Inn during what police said was a drug deal Hinton had set up in order to rob them. Witnesses said Barnes and Brown died at the scene, but Stevenson managed to stagger outside before being chased by two men, one of whom exited the vehicle to pursue him on foot and shoot him again, fatally, in a nearby used car lot.
The prosecution theory was that Brown and Barnes were about to test the supposed cocaine that Hinton brought to the motel, which was really flour, when they were shot in the head. Then Hinton’s accomplice, Steven Hicks, allegedly shot Stevenson, and Hinton shot at another man, Jeffrey Cunningham, who feigned death and later testified under a grant of immunity.
Hinton was originally arrested and released for lack of evidence, as the murder weapon had not been recovered and Cunningham could not identify him as the shooter.
But Hinton became the focus of investigation again after he was arrested and charged with another murder, that of Dwayne Reed, who was shot and killed while pumping gas at a station on Imperial Highway.
Hinton was alleged to have walked up and accused Reed of wanting to kill him. Witnesses said Reed, who knew Hinton and whose family said it thought Hinton was a friend of his, denied the allegation. Hinton then reportedly said, “I don’t trust you” and shot Reed several times in the head.
The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Terrence Terauchi, cited the similarities in the two cases in attempting to consolidate them, which the judge would not allow. The Reed case went to trial first, resulting in a conviction on retrial following a hung jury.
The prosecution then successfully charged the Reed murder as a special circumstance in seeking the death penalty for the motel slayings. The defense argued that Hicks—who was never charged—was the only shooter and that Hinton had no part in the robbery scheme or the shootings, and was no more than an accessory after the fact.
On appeal, court-appointed lawyers Jay L. Lichtman and Tracy J. Dessner argued that the death penalty verdict was tainted because Stevenson’s mother had said something to the effect of “Thank you, Jesus. Kill him” when the guilty verdicts were announced.
The issue was not raised until the end of the penalty phase evidence, when defense counsel—who was retained strictly to try the penalty phase after court-appointed counsel tried the guilt phase—said he had not heard about the incident until that day. Lichtman and Dessner argued that, Chavez should have held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the jurors heard the remark, and if so, whether they were affected by it.
Baxter, however, called the comment “brief and unsurprising,” and said the judge did not err in ignoring it, and that any error would have been harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because it could not have affected the verdict.
The defense also argued that Chavez should have specifically instructed the jury that a defendant who does not knowingly participate in a robbery or murder, but merely helps the actual robber and killer flee, cannot be convicted under the felony-murder rule.
But any error was harmless, Baxter said, because the jury made a special finding that Hinton personally used a firearm during the commission of the robbery and murders.
Prosecution counsel on appeal was Deputy Attorney General Gary A. Lieberman.
The case is People v. Hinton, 06 S.O.S. 348.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company