Tuesday, December 6, 2011
S.C. Tosses Death Sentences, Says Juror Improperly Removed
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday threw out the murder convictions and death sentences imposed on two South Los Angeles men, including a man described by police as one of the city’s most violent gang leaders.
Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for a unanimous court, said that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan erred in disqualifying a juror, who the judge said prejudged the case and relied on extrinsic evidence, during deliberations.
The ruling means that prosecutors will have to retry Cleamon “Big Evil” Johnson and Michael “Fat Rat” Allen for the murders of Donald Ray Loggins and Payton Beroit. Johnson, now 44, is a onetime Boy Scout who became the “shot caller” for the 89 Family Bloods and is responsible for more than 60 murders, according to police.
He once told a reporter that he celebrated after receiving the death sentence because he would live longer on Death Row than on the streets. “Getting the death penalty saved my life,” he was quoted as saying.
During deliberations at the 1997 trial, two jurors, including the foreperson, told the judge they were concerned a third juror had made up his mind before all testimony was heard. The judge interviewed the jurors, with the agreement of all counsel, and they reported that Juror No. 11 had stated that “When the prosecution rested, she didn’t have a case” and that the prosecuting attorney “never” presented a case of guilt.
When asked whether he had made up his mind, Juror No. 11 reportedly said “No. No. No. I haven’t made up my mind.” The foreperson said juror No. 11 voted “undecided” during a preliminary vote, but Juror No. 4 said that Juror No. 11 was “not being completely honest” when he denied having made up his mind.
Juror No. 4 also referred to a point in the testimony at which a witness named Carl Connor claimed to have seen Allen firing into the vehicle. The defense sought to impeach that testimony by introducing a timecard showing that the witness was working at the time of the murder, but the witness claimed that he and his coworker “Jose” often clocked in for each other.
Juror No. 11’s response to that attempt at rehabilitation was to scoff:
“I know Hispanics, they never cheat on timecards, so this witness was at work, end of discussion.”
After Horan interviewed the entire jury, he removed the juror and replaced him with an alternate.
The reconstituted jury found both defendants guilty of murder in the first degree with a special circumstance of multiple murder. Following a separate hearing, Horan found that Allen had been convicted of a prior murder, an additional special circumstance.
Following the penalty phase, the jury returned a death penalty verdict. The judge denied motions for new trial and for modification of the verdict, and imposed the death sentence on both defendants.
The pair contended on appeal that the disqualification of the juror exceeded the judge’s discretion, and the high court agreed. “Because the record does not show to a demonstrable reality that Juror No. 11 was unable to discharge his duty, the court abused its discretion by removing him,” Corrigan wrote.
The trial judge, she said, was wrong on both issues cited in his ruling.
She distinguished Grobeson v. City of Los Angeles (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 778, in which the appellant was granted a new trial because a juror said, in the middle of a trial: “I made up my mind already. I’m not going to listen to the rest of the stupid argument.”
Here, the justice explained, the juror merely expressed an opinion, during deliberations, as to the strength of the prosecution’s case, and did not state that he had made up his mind
“Jurors are supposed to share their own evaluations of the credibility of witnesses and the strength of the evidence,” she wrote. “That a given juror may reach a different conclusion on these questions from those espoused by other jurors, or may do so forcefully, is not necessarily evidence of prejudgment or a failure to deliberate.”
The justice said there is no precedent for discharging a juror for bias “based solely on comments made during deliberations.”
The juror’s comment about the work habits of Hispanics, she went on to say, did not establish that he had relied on evidence not presented in court.
“Juror No. 11’s remark did not constitute misconduct,” Corrigan explained. “His positive opinion about the reliability of Hispanics in the workplace did not involve specialized information from an outside source. It was an application of his life experience, in the specific context of timecards and the workplace, that led him to conclude Connor was not telling the truth about the shootings.”
The case was argued in the high court by Brent F. Romney, by appointment, for Allen; Assistant State Public Defender Andrew S. Love for Johnson; and Deputy Attorney General Gary A. Lieberman for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Allen, 11 S.O.S. 6463.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company