Tuesday, January 10, 2012
S.C. Unanimously Reverses Death Sentence for Long Beach Murder
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously reversed the death sentence for one of three men convicted of kidnapping, robbing, raping, torturing, and murdering a Long Beach woman for the $6 in food stamps she was carrying, due to the improper excusal of a prospective juror because of her views on capital punishment.
In a decision by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, the state high court explained that a juror’s lack of strong views about the death penalty does not disqualify her from serving since she may still be capable of following her oath to the law.
The issue arose in the automatic appeal of Kevin Darnell Pearson’s conviction and sentence for crimes against Penny Sigler, 43.
A prospective juror for the trial, identified in the decision as C.O., indicated in her questionnaire that she wished to serve and thought she could be an impartial juror because she was unbiased and believed in “[f]airness to the defense and prosecution.”
She wrote that she had no general feelings about the death penalty, but she had thought about the “negatives & positives,” and did not believe either death or life without parole should be mandatory in all murder cases, because “not all murder cases are the same.”
The juror also indicated that she felt she could vote to impose the death penalty and did not think it constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but was “uncertain if I approve or disapprove w/ death sentence.”
Over the objection of the defense, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Tomson T. Ong excused C.O. for cause because of her “equivocal views.”
The jury was eventually seated, and evidence presented at the following trial indicated that Pearson and two other men attacked the victim, a stranger to them, between 11 p.m. and midnight on Dec. 29, 1998.
Her nude body was found the next day on the freeway embankment of northbound Interstate 405, near the intersection of Wardlow Road and Long Beach Boulevard.
The medical examiner identified 114 injuries to Sigler’s body—all of which appeared to have been inflicted before death—including 25 fractures, two cuts deep enough to expose bone, and a partially torn-off ear.
During the guilt phase of the trial, the jury was instructed that torture was a felony on which it could base a felony-murder special circumstance, as to which the jury needed to find only that defendant, if not the actual killer, acted as a major participant and with reckless indifference to human life.
The jury was also told that the only weapon to be considered with regard to the personal use allegations against Pearson was the stake or stick with which Sigler had been beaten and sexually penetrated.
It found true all of the special circumstances and the personal use allegation. Pearson challenged these findings, along with the disqualification of C.O, on appeal.
Writing yesterday for the Supreme Court, Werdegar said she agreed with Pearson that insufficient evidence supported the personal use finding.
She noted that in Pearson’s testimony and statements to police and others, he admitted helping wrestle the victim to the ground and move her over the fence onto the freeway embankment, raping her, kicking or stomping on her head or upper body, and moving her body after the attack. As for the beating and penetration with the wooden stake, however, Pearson had attributed these actions to the other two assailants.
“No witness testified defendant used the stake, no out-of-court statements to that effect were introduced, and no physical evidence indicated he had used it,” Werdegar said, and while “[t]he evidence leaves it entirely possible defendant used the stake in attacking Sigler,” she reasoned there was “nothing from which a rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant personally wielded the stake in the attack….”
The justice also said Ong erred in including torture in the list of felonies on which the jury could base a felony-murder special circumstance.
“Under subdivision (c) of [Penal Code] section 190.2, a defendant who aided and abetted the murder but was not the actual killer is generally eligible for capital punishment only if he or she acted with the intent to kill,” Werdegar explained. Since no instruction provided to the jury asked them to make this finding, and it made no finding as to this issue, she said the special circumstance had to be vacated.
But, Werdegar reasoned, this did not necessitate reversal of the judgment of death since the jury’s other special circumstance findings were unaffected by the instructional error.
Instead, she said, “the penalty judgment must be reversed because of error in death-qualifying the jury.”
Werdegar concluded that “the record does not support the trial court’s finding that C.O.’s views regarding the death penalty would prevent or substantially impair the performance of her duties as a juror,” since she “made no conflicting or equivocal statements about her ability to vote for a death penalty in a factually appropriate case.”
The justice acknowledged that the juror’s “general views on the death penalty were vague and largely unformed,” but opined that “on whether she could vote to impose it, her responses were definite and consistent.”
“According to the questionnaire, she would not vote automatically for life in prison regardless of the evidence; she would not find it impossible to vote for death in every case; she could set aside whatever she had heard about the death penalty outside of court and decide defendant’s punishment based only on the evidence at trial; and she was not a person who, while supporting the death penalty, could not vote to impose it,” Werdegar said.
On voir dire, C.O. also repeated several times that she felt she could vote for the death penalty in an appropriate case, and “[s]he never wavered on this point,” the justice noted.
“To exclude from a capital jury all those who will not promise to immovably embrace the death penalty in the case before them unconstitutionally biases the selection process,” Werdegar reasoned.
So long as a juror’s views on the death penalty do not prevent or substantially impair her from weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, deliberating with the other jurors, and choosing the appropriate penalty, she said that juror should not be disqualified by her failure “to enthusiastically support capital punishment,” Werdegar said.
Pearson was represented by appointed Ojai attorney Conrad Petermann. Deputy Attorney General Yun K. Lee appeared on behalf of the state.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office told The Associate Press yesterday that the office “will review the ruling to determine our course of action if the case is returned.”
Petermann said he could not immediately comment because he had not finished reading the decision.
Jamelle Armstrong and Warren Hardy were also convicted of the killing and sentenced to death. Their appeals are pending.
The case is People v. Pearson, 12 S.O.S. 81.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company