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California Supreme Court reverses two death-row convictions

Posted on in Criminal Defense

The Constitution guarantees that a criminal defendant receives a fair trial. One of the most important foundations of our justice system is the right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury. The California Supreme Court ruled last week that two men, who have been sitting on death row for nearly 15 years, were denied their right to a fair trial, and the state high court reversed those convictions.

The two men were accused of being involved in a gang. Prosecutors accused one of the men of ordering the second man to murder two men who prosecutors had claimed were members of a rival gang. Gang-related charges in California can carry significant penalties upon conviction, and after a jury trial the two men were convicted of the murder charges and sentenced to death row.

During deliberations, one of the jurors reportedly had misgivings about the credibility of one of the prosecution's witnesses in the trial. It is an important function of the jury to weigh the credibility of witnesses in a criminal trial. However, two jurors apparently complained to the judge during deliberations about the juror who found the witness lacked credibility. The judge dismissed the juror, finding that the panelist acted improperly by allegedly considering evidence not presented during the trial.

After upholding nearly 50 murder convictions in a row, the California Supreme Court ruled last week that the trial judge improperly dismissed the juror in the murder trial. The high court found that the juror's doubt about the prosecution witness's credibility did not show that the juror acted improperly and did not show that the juror had prejudged the case. The California Supreme Court found that the juror appropriately relied on the juror's own experience and common sense in weighing the credibility of the witness.

In the ruling, the Court says that, "Jurors... are the judges of credibility, and conscientious jurors may come to different conclusions."

The state attorney general's office says it is considering whether or not to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Prosecutors say they are assessing the case and have not yet decided whether they will retry the cases.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "California Supreme Court voids two death row convictions," Maura Dolan, Dec. 5, 2011

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