SAN FRANCISCO — The murder conviction of a Pasadena man facing the death penalty was reversed today by the California Supreme Court on a 4-3 decision with Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird writing the majority opinion.
It was the 56th death case reversal out of 59 the court has heard since 1977, when voters approved a state law reinstituting the ultimate penalty. Bird, whose reconfirmation to the court this November is under fire from proponents of the death penalty, has voted against it 100%.
The latest case came in an appeal for Ronald Jerome Smallwood, who had been charged with two murders, the March 17, 1979, slaying of a pensioner, George House, 52, and the shooting death seven months later of a lawyer, John Dunbar.
Both slayings occurred in the vicinity of the King's Manor Housing Project in Pasadena and were motived by street robberies, trial testimony disclosed.
Smallwood presented no defense testimony in the House slaying, but produced witnesses who testified he was elsewhere at the time of the Dunbar shooting.
The jury subsequently failed to reach a verdict on charges relating to Dunbar and a mistrial was declared. But Smallwood was found guilty of first-degree murder with the use of a firearm and one count of armed robbery in the death of House.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court by attorneys for Smallwood, alleging he should have been tried separately for the murders because:
--They occurred months apart.
--They were not so similar that evidence relating to one would be admissible in a trial of the other.
--Evidence on the Dunbar counts was substantially stronger than that which connected Smallwood to the House counts and might "spill over," causing the jury to convict on the latter, even though the defendant stood a good chance of acquittal in a separate trial.
-- And, severance was necessary to prevent a resultant unfair application of the charged multiple murder special circumstances portions of the law.
A result of trying the cases together "was to ensure that highly prejudicial and otherwise inadmissible evidence of other crimes would be before the jury as it decided each count.
"The harm which flows from allowing the jury to hear evidence of other crimes is too well known to require much statement," the high court said.
The decision, written by Bird, was also signed by Justices Allen E. Broussard, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin.
A dissenting opinion written by Justice Malcom M. Lucas, said Smallwood's conviction in the joint murder cases "clearly was not prejudicial in light of the overwhelming evidence of defendant's guilt of the offenses of which he was convicted."
Justices Stanly Mosk and Edward A. Panelli concurred with the Lucas dissent.