Tuesday, June 30, 2015
State Supreme Court Rules:
Judge Coen Wrongly Dismissed Prospective Jurors From Death Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of murdering two store clerks during a string of armed robberies in Los Angeles County in 1993.
While affirming Richard Leon’s convictions on two counts of first degree murder, 16 counts of robbery, and other offenses, the high court unanimously ruled that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen improperly dismissed three prospective jurors from the case. Though each of the jurors expressed opposition to the death penalty, they also each indicated they could set that view aside if instructed to do so, Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the court.
The convictions, which Corrigan said were supported by overwhelming evidence, resulted from 10 separate robberies that occurred across Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley in January and February 1993. The last four were committed on Feb. 17, and Leon was arrested the next day after leading police on a chase at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour on wet streets.
Shot at Work
The murder victims were shot and killed eight days apart in Sun Valley. Norair Akhverdian was killed while working at a gas station in Sun Valley and Varouj Armenian while working at a Hollywood liquor store.
The case was prosecuted by then-Deputy District Attorney Jackie Lacey, now district attorney of Los Angeles County.
At trial, the defense contended that Leon, a Native American, should be spared execution because he had been abused as a child, and because he had been involved with drugs and alcohol at an early age and had likely been under the influence when he committed the murders.
Corrigan said the excusals of the three venire members violated Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968) 391 U.S. 510 and Wainwright v. Witt (1985) 469 U.S. 412. The cases hold that the right to jury trial is violated if a potential juror is excused merely for expressing anti-death penalty views, as opposed to being unwilling and unable to consider the issue impartially.
In Leon’s case, Corrigan said, the trial judge concluded from the responses to four questions on a questionnaire that the prospective jurors would not be able to conscientiously consider the death penalty.
“When the prospective jurors repeated their answers about automatically voting for life imprisonment without parole, the court excused them without exploring whether they were capable of setting aside this bias and imposing a verdict of death if the evidence of aggravating and mitigating factors required it,” the justice explained. Such a “cursory” examination, Corrigan wrote, was insufficient “to permit an informed decision about their ability to serve.”
Corrigan went on to note that Weatherspoon/Witt error requires automatic reversal under later Supreme Court precedent.
The case, People v. Leon, 15 S.O.S. 3287, was argued in the Supreme Court by Deputy State Public Defender Mary K. McComb and Deputy Attorney General Stacy S. Schwartz.
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