The state Supreme Court, citing evidence of racial bias in jury selection, on Thursday overturned the death sentence of the convicted killer of a Pasadena pharmacist who was expected to testify against him in a 1980 robbery trial.
The justices unanimously reversed the murder conviction and sentence of Prentice Juan Snow, 33, finding that the trial judge failed to adequately question the prosecution about its unexplained dismissal of several blacks as prospective jurors in the case.
The court, expanding a landmark 1978 ruling, held that even though the prosecution allowed two blacks to serve as jurors, it should have been questioned to see whether there was bias in its dismissal of other blacks as jurors.
"Although the (approval) of certain jurors may be an indication of the prosecutor's good faith . . . it is not a conclusive factor," Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas wrote for the court. "Other members of the group may have been excluded for improper, racially motivated reasons."
Similarly, the justices added, the possibility that the defense purposely excluded whites from the jury also did not justify the prosecution's exclusion of blacks. Thursday's ruling, involving a black defendant and a white victim, reaffirmed the court's 9-year-old decision forbidding the systematic dismissal of prospective jurors because of their race.
Such group-wide bias, the court said in its 1978 trail-blazing ruling, violates the defendant's right to an impartial jury drawn from a cross-section of the community. When there is a preliminary indication of bias, a trial judge must hold an inquiry to make sure there are legitimate, non-racial reasons for exclusion of the jurors.
In a Kentucky case it decided in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted similar protections against discrimination.
The decision Thursday marked the third time in seven capital cases that the new and more conservative state court has overturned a death sentence since three appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian replaced former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices defeated in the Nov. 4, 1986, election.
An attorney for Snow, Ellen Bailer Fondilier of Carmel, said she was "very satisfied" with the ruling. "The right to fair jury selection is a very important one," she said. "The error in this trial was pretty clear and the court's ruling today was correct."
State Deputy Atty. Gen. Ellen Birnbaum Kehr said she was "naturally disappointed" by the ruling but expressed confidence that Snow would be convicted of the murder charge on retrial.
Kehr noted that Snow has since been found guilty of the robbery that the prosecution contends led to the killing of the pharmacist. "The evidence will be as strong or even stronger on retrial," she said. Snow and a co-defendant had been charged in the robbery of a pharmacy owned by Alfred J. Koll. In November, 1980, on the morning of the trial, Snow's attorney met with a prosecutor to discuss the prospect of a plea-bargain in the case. Snow asked to consider the matter during the lunch hour and was seen making a telephone call and then leaving the courthouse.
Not long after, Koll, the only witness to identify Snow as one of the robbers, was gunned down at his pharmacy, which was less than a mile from the courthouse. Koll's assailant shot him seven times. That afternoon, Snow rejected a plea-bargain, saying he wanted to go to trial. Told of the killing of Koll, Snow's lawyer was "dumbfounded" by the news, but the defendant showed no sign of surprise, according to authorities.
Snow subsequently was charged in Koll's death and was convicted of killing a witness to prevent him from testifying, a capital offense. In the penalty phase of the trial, Snow asked to be sentenced to the gas chamber rather than spending the rest of his life in prison.
He professed his innocence but said that did not matter any more because the jury had reached a verdict.
The jury granted his request, issuing the death penalty. But then the defense sought and was granted a new penalty trial because the jury had been improperly instructed about the governor's authority to commute a sentence. A second jury was impaneled and again Snow received the death penalty.
The state Supreme Court, reviewing the case on automatic appeal, concluded that Snow was entitled to a new trial because blacks may have been improperly excluded from the jury that convicted him of murder. There were no valid, non-racial reasons given for their dismissal, it said.
Lucas, writing for the court, said a review of the record of Snow's trial indicated that at least three of the six blacks excluded from the jury were dismissed even though they had given "seemingly routine, acceptable" responses to the prosecutor's questions.