Friday, August 12, 2016
Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence, Says Juror’s Removal Was Improper
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A man convicted of murdering three Inglewood brothers and torturing his ex-girlfriend to scare her out of testifying that he admitted the killings must be given a new trial because the judge wrongly excused a juror who allegedly failed to deliberate, the state Supreme Court said yesterday.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing for a unanimous court, said the decision by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders, now retired, to remove the juror from Craigen Armstrong’s trial was not “manifestly supported” by the evidence the judge relied on, which was the testimony of two other jurors.
Christopher Florence, according to the trial testimony and newspaper accounts of the case, was a 21-year-old Neiman Marcus receiving clerk who was shot while made a wrong turn down a one-way street. A man at the end of the block, mistaking him for a rival gang member, aimed a 9-millimeter handgun at him and pulled the trigger.
Two nights later, older brothers Torry and Michael Florence, younger brother Brian—a high school student at the time—and friend Floyd Watson went to Century Boulevard and Doty Avenue in Inglewood, an area controlled by a violent street gang known as the Crenshaw Mafia. They stopped there en route to a meeting with a supposed tipster who claimed to know who killed Christopher Florence.
Suddenly shots rang out. The two older brothers were killed, while Brian and Watson left to get help.
Armstrong was charged seven months later, after his hospitalized ex-girlfriend Tyiska Webster disclosed for the first time that Armstrong had admitted both shootings. She did so after being attacked in a hotel room, where was staying as a protected witness in another case, by several men—including Armstrong’s brother—who accused her of being a “snitch,” berated her for not sending Armstrong money, and beat her with a telephone cord and burned her with lit sticks.
Armstrong admitted over the telephone, while this was going on, that he was the one who sent the attackers, she testified.
Armstrong testified that he had nothing to do with the first shooting; that he committed the second shooting in self-defense, believing from one of the passenger’s hand gestures that the passenger had a gun; and that he had nothing to do with the attack on Webster.
At trial, the judge, during the guilt phase deliberations, excused a juror, identified only as No. 5, after she sent him a note accusing another juror, No. 12 of bias. After questioning No. 5, No. 12, and two other jurors, Pounders concluded that No. 12 had failed to report a friendship with Armstrong’s cousin, that the other jurors had persuasively testified that No. 5 was biased, and that No. 5’s denials of bias were not credible.
Nos. 5 and 12 were excused and replaced by alternates. The jury eventually found Armstrong guilty of all three murders, of the attempted murders of Brian and Watson, and of torture, burglary, and other crimes resulting from the attack on Webster.
But Cantil-Sakauye, noting that the court is required to give heightened scrutiny to excusal of a juror for failure to “perform his or her duty,” said Pounders abused his discretion.
The chief justice described as “de minimis” the testimony that led the trial judge to conclude that No. 5, instead of listening to her fellow jurors, was using her cell phone or reading a book during deliberations.
“[T]he only evidence supporting the court’s finding regarding Juror No. 5’s book and cell phone use was the testimony of Juror No. 6, who reported that Juror No. 5 looked at a book and a cell phone ‘one or two times’ for “’a few minutes,’” Cantil-Sakauye explained. This was not enough to meet the requirement of a “demonstrable reality” that a juror is failing to deliberate or otherwise perform his or her duty, she said.
The chief justice added:
“In reversing the judgment in this case, we remind trial courts that the removal of a seated juror for failing to deliberate is a serious matter that implicates a defendant’s state and federal constitutional right to a unanimous decision by the jury….Although a trial judge has discretion to remove a juror for a failure to deliberate, the exercise of that discretion should be undertaken with great care.”
People v. Armstrong, 16 S.O.S. 4073, was argued by court-appointed defense counsel Patricia A. Scott of Prescott, Ariz. and by Deputy Attorney General Eric J. Kohn.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company