Tuesday, August 16, 2016
S.C. Tosses Death Sentence in Murders at Target Store
Unanimous Court Says Judge Clarence Stromwall Intruded on 1995 Jury Deliberations
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge interfered with jury deliberations during the penalty phase of a capital murder trial, necessitating a reversal of the death sentence, the California Supreme Court yesterday.
The court ordered a new penalty trial for Sergio Nelson, who was sentenced to death by Judge Clarence Stromwall in 1995 for killing two employees outside a Target store in LaVerne in 1993. Nelson killed the two after one of them was promoted over him.
His attorney did not dispute that he was the shooter, but claimed he was mentally troubled and did not premeditate the killings.
Nelson, 19 and a Pomona resident at the time, shot Robin Shirley, 32, and Lee Thompson, 22, also of Pomona, as they sat in Thompson’s car in front of the store on Foothill Boulevard as they waited to begin their early Saturday morning shifts, according to the high court’s opinion and newspaper accounts of the case.
Nelson walked up to the car and fired six shots from a 9-millimeter handgun. The victims were hit several times in the back of the head and died at the scene, police said.
Witnesses said Shirley had recently received a promotion to leader of the “push team” on which she and Nelson worked. The team unloaded trucks and stocked shelves.
Nelson felt he deserved the promotion, witnesses said, causing tension with Shirley, who had previously been his friend. Nelson, who had worked at the store for 16 months, quit his job three weeks before the shootings.
Nelson was charged with first degree murder, with special circumstances of multiple murder and lying in wait. Prosecutors contended that he planned Shirley’s murder, rode to the store on a bicycle, hid the bicycle nearby, then came up behind the victims on foot and shot them in quick succession, then shot them again to make sure they were dead.
His case was tried before Stromwall, a onetime Los Angeles Police Department detective who retired from the bench in 1991 but continued to sit on assignment. He died in 1996.
Jurors at Nelson’s first trial found him guilty and found both special circumstances to have been proven, but deadlocked 11-1 in favor of the death penalty, necessitating a penalty retrial. After six days of deliberations, the second jury reported that it was split 10-2, but was not asked which way.
The prosecution, Justice Goodwin H. Liu explained in his opinion for the court, then proposed that jurors be given a questionnaire, asking, among other things, whether they thought further deliberations would be helpful, and whether a read-back of testimony or additional instructions might be of assistance.
The prosecution also proposed that jurors be asked whether any of their fellow jurors were refusing to deliberate, received information from outside sources, or expressed views on the death penalty based on something other than the evidence.
Stromwall agreed to the questionnaires, over defense objection. After only two jurors responded that additional deliberations might help, the judge said it was clear that the holdouts were refusing to deliberate.
After denying a defense motion for mistrial, the judge suggested the questionnaires had caused more problems than they solved and decided to question jurors in open court, reading questionnaire responses, asking the jury foreperson about them, and interjecting comments of his own.
In one instance, he noted that a juror had suggested that a verdict might be reached if the court would “dismiss two jurors who are not fair to both sides and are unreasonable in thinking” and who “lack common sense and are more responsive to their feelings instead of the law.’ ” When the judge commented, “I assume that that’s also kind of a tongue-in-cheek answer,” the foreperson agreed.
Stromwall also asked the foreperson to assess the validity of criticisms of the holdout jurors by other jurors, in response to which the foreperson and the judge became involved in a discussion of how the jurors were weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The judge then questioned several jurors in chambers, over defense objection, about their questionnaire responses.
Stromwall then excused one of the jurors, who acknowledged in chambers that she had been diagnosed as bipolar and was taking Welbutrin and lithium, although she said this did not affect her judgment. The judge agreed with the prosecutor that the juror should be removed for not having disclosed this information earlier.
An alternate was seated, and jurors reached a death penalty verdict the next day.
Liu, writing for the high court, said Stromwall engaged in an “unconstitutional intrusion into the deliberative process” that required reversal, either as structural error or because it was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
“In the circumstances of this case, we conclude there is a reasonable possibility that the unwarranted introduction into the jury room of the court-authorized questionnaire and the court’s subsequent questioning of the jurors affected the jury’s deliberations,” the justice wrote. There was, he said, “more than a remote possibility that the questionnaire and the trial court’s follow-up questioning distorted the deliberative process” by making the holdout jurors less willing to stick to their sincerely held positions.
The problem was compounded, he said, by the removal of the one juror based on information “came to light only when the court improperly gave the questionnaire to the jurors.” He decried the “selective disclosure process” in which the trial judge sought “to expose the conduct and thought processes of the holdout jurors, not jurors in general.”
Liu also concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the finding of lying in wait.
“There is no evidence…that Nelson arrived before the victims or waited in ambush for their arrival. In the absence of such evidence, there is no factual basis for an inference that before approaching the victims, he had concealed his bicycle and waited for a time when they would be vulnerable to surprise attack. The jury was presented with no evidence from which it could have chosen, beyond a reasonable doubt, that scenario over one in which defendant arrived after the victims, dismounted from his bicycle, and attacked them from behind without any distinct period of watchful waiting.”
Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, and Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra R. Kruger joined Liu in the opinion.
Justice Carol A. Corrigan, joined by Justice Ming Chin, dissented as to the lying-in-wait special circumstance only. There was, Corrigan argued, sufficient evidence for jurors to conclude that Nelson watched and waited a substantial time before shooting his victims.
People v. Nelson, 16 S.O.S. 4139, was argued in the Supreme Court by Deputy State Public Defender Joseph E. Chabot and Deputy Attorney General Tita Nguyen.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company