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Supreme Court Overturns Long Beach Death Penalty

Court finds trial court improperly excused a prospective juror and denied defendant fair sentencing for his conviction of murder, rape and torture of woman robbed of $6 in food stamps in grisly attack.

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

John B. Greet January 09, 2012 at 11:52 PM
What a pity that a person who has already been convicted of 1st degree murder and other felonies, including rape and torture (verdicts the State Supreme Court has now affirmed) will not receive the statutory punishment he rightly deserves because of a technical question concerning juror selection.
Nancy Wride (Editor) January 10, 2012 at 02:09 AM
Hey John, it does seem like a technicality and what a horrific crime. The robbery got them $6 in food stamps.
John B. Greet January 10, 2012 at 02:25 AM
Nancy, few can imagine just how horrific it was. I don't have to imagine. I was present at the crime scene for a good long while after the crime was discovered. They are images that will likely never fade from my memory. Ever. Given that Pearson was convicted, and then that his convictions were affirmed by the higher court, I think the proper remedy on the juror issue would be to re-try the penalty phase. Double-jeopardy should not attach since the defendant has already been convicted...
Rodger Higgins January 10, 2012 at 03:51 AM
Let the Judges take his place. Since when does a murderer and rapist deserve more than the dead victim. Shot the SOB and save taxpayer money. Get these Judges off the bench since they seem to be left leaning asswipes.
Nancy Wride (Editor) January 10, 2012 at 06:14 AM
I shudder at the description. Were you in patrol then, John? And Rodger, I think the retrial of the penalty phase is what would likely happen, not the conviction itself, right? On left-leaning, I once heard that Long Beach judges were more conservative than those in Orange County?
John B. Greet January 10, 2012 at 10:48 PM
Yes, Nancy. And to see the senseless inhumanity of a woman raped, robbed, and then beaten to death and abandoned along a freeway embankment is the sort of thing that makes some cops become so cynical about the world. And then to realize that a person who has been tried and convicted for his part in those despicable acts, and who has then had his conviction affirmed on appeal, will not receive the appropriate sentence for his crimes...over a technicality...is the sort of thing that makes some cops wonder why they bother working so hard to bring people like that to justice in the first place.
Shawn Pearson January 11, 2012 at 01:48 PM
Judge Tomson Ong is one of the best jurists on the bench. To disqualify a potential juror who was wishy-washy on the death penalty was absolutely correct. It was in the defendant's favor. Now, we have a complete panel of "rose birds" on the supreme court, who will contrive any flimsy excuse to deny citizens the right to put heinous criminals to death, where they rightfully belong.

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