The California Supreme Court today reversed the death sentence of one of three men convicted in the rape and murder of a woman whose nude body was found on a freeway embankment in Long Beach more than a decade ago.
Kevin Darnell Pearson, 34, was denied a fair penalty trial ``due to the trial court's improper excusal of a prospective juror because of her views on capital punishment,'' according to the ruling. Pearson and co-defendants Jamelle Armstrong and Warren Hardy were convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstance allegations in the death of Penny Sigler, also known as Penny Keptra, during a robbery and sexual assault. All three men were sentenced to death.
It's the second time in a month that the state's high court has taken the rare step of reversing a death sentence. Both those cases originated in Los Angeles County. Superior Court Judge Tomson T. Ong excused a prospective juror in Pearson's trial, identified only as C.O., after finding that she had given ``equivocal" and ``conflicting" responses about capital punishment, and therefore ``would not be an appropriate juror in this particular case.'' Ong cited in particular the juror's answer to one question in the jury questionnaire in which she said she was ``not sure where I stand (on the death penalty) but if I strongly felt strong about something, I would stand behind it.''
But in reversing Pearson's death sentence, the Supreme Court ruled that none of the juror's ``answers on the questionnaire or in voir dire suggested views that would substantially impair her ability to perform her duties by voting to impose the death penalty in an appropriate case.'' ``To exclude from a capital jury all those who will not promise to immovably embrace the death penalty in the case before them unconstitutionally biases the selection process,'' Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote in the opinion.
``So long as a juror's views on the death penalty do not prevent or substantially impair the juror from `conscientiously consider(ing) all of the sentencing alternatives, including the death penalty where appropriate', the juror is not disqualified by his or her failure to enthusiastically support capital punishment,'' the ruling states. The Supreme Court affirmed Pearson's convictions for first-degree murder and other felonies ,including rape and torture. He has been on death row since December 2003.
Pearson and his co-defendants attacked Sigler, 43, as she was walking to a store about 11 p.m. on Dec. 29, 1998. They robbed her of $6 worth of food stamps, raped her and beat her to death with a wooden stake, inflicting more than 100 injuries. Sigler's body was found the next day on a freeway embankment of the northbound San Diego (405) Freeway. The trial prosecutor described it as ``one of the most vicious, cruel and horrific crimes that I have seen as a prosecutor.''
Hardy, now 35, and Armstrong, now 31, were tried separately. The California Supreme Court has not yet considered their appeals. In December, the court reversed the death sentences of notorious South Los Angeles gang leader Cleamon ``Big Evil'' Johnson and one of his cohorts for the August 1991 slayings of two rivals, ruling that the trial judge erroneously discharged a juror during deliberations in the guilt phase of the trial.
--City News Service