California Supreme Court voids two death row convictions
Justices rule that Judge Charles Horan acted improperly in removing a juror who questioned a witness' reliability in gang members' murder trial.
Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson was charged with ordering the killings of two rival gang members. (Associated Press / December 5, 2011)
December 5, 2011, 10:38 p.m.
After upholding nearly 50 death sentences in a row, the California Supreme Court on Monday broke its pattern by overturning the convictions of a reputed gang leader in Los Angeles and his alleged accomplice in two killings that sent both men to death row for 15 years.
The state high court unanimously ruled that Cleamon Johnson and Michael Allen, convicted of killing rival gang members Peyton Beroit and Donald Loggins in 1991, were denied a fair trial when a judge removed a juror who appeared to be critical of the prosecution's case.
In a ruling written by Justice Carol A. Corrigan, the court cited a lack of evidence to support then-Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles Horan's decision to remove the juror for prejudging the case and relying on evidence outside the 1997 trial.
Johnson, known as "Big Evil," headed a gang called the 89 Family Bloods during the 1980s and early '90s that authorities contend was responsible for about 60 killings in South Los Angeles.
Johnson was convicted of ordering Allen to kill the two rival gang members with an Uzi. Johnson also was charged with a third killing and two attempted killings but another jury deadlocked on those charges in 1999.
In reversing the convictions that sent Johnson and Allen to death row, the state high court said the juror who was removed was deliberating properly and relying on experience, not bias, to evaluate a prosecution eyewitness.
"It may be argued that Juror No. 11's conclusion was based upon a weak premise or rested upon an over-broad inference," Corrigan wrote. "Jurors, however, are the judges of credibility, and conscientious jurors may come to different conclusions.
"It is not the province of trial or reviewing courts to substitute their logic for that of jurors to whom credibility decisions are entrusted."
Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said a decision on whether to retry Johnson and Allen would be made after the office reviews the ruling and assesses the case.
Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, said her office is considering a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "We're disappointed but reviewing our options," Gledhill said.
Supervising State Deputy Public Defender Andrew Love, who represented Johnson, said he was thrilled by the ruling but also "angry and frustrated" that it took so many years for the state high court to decide the case.
"This case involved truly outrageous conduct by the trial judge, who kicked a juror off the case in the middle of deliberations because it was reported by another juror that he was not persuaded by the prosecution's case," Love said. "Reversal was a foregone conclusion."
He said Johnson was on death row for five years before getting a lawyer to handle his appeal, and the California Supreme Court waited many more years to decide the case after it had been fully briefed.
"One of the primary reasons these cases take so long is the shortage of competent lawyers willing to handle capital appeals in the California Supreme Court — and a key reason why is the perception that the court does not undertake a careful, meaningful review of these cases," Love said.
Prosecutors said Johnson was a "shot caller" in the street gang and presented a witness who testified that he heard Johnson order Allen to kill the victims.
The juror who was dismissed had expressed doubts about the witness' credibility. After two other jurors complained about him, Horan interviewed the entire panel before discharging the juror.
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