An appellate court Tuesday threw out the 1984 first-degree murder conviction of a former Fountain Valley man, ruling that prosecutors wrongly relied on evidence that had been dismissed twice before to try to make their case yet a third time.
Robert R. Washington was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder in the beating death of a former girlfriend, Janet Prince, whose partially decomposed body was found on the floor of her Garden Grove apartment in June, 1982.
The district attorney's office alleged that Washington--already on parole at the time for a prior offense--killed Prince, then stole her 1983 Toyota Celica and fled to San Francisco, later telling friends that an old girlfriend had let him borrow the car.
Robbery of Car Cited
Prosecutors pointed to the alleged robbery of the car as grounds for convicting Washington of first-degree felony murder, a charge that alleges that the murder occurred during the commission of a rape, arson, robbery or related crime.
In appealing Washington's murder conviction, his attorneys complained that the trial judge allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence of the robbery even though that evidence had been dismissed as insufficient twice before in separate court hearings.
The 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, in its ruling Tuesday, agreed. Justices reversed Washington's conviction, meaning that prosecutors will now have to decide whether to try Washington again without using the robbery evidence.
In their decision, the justices said, "To allow the prosecution to bootstrap a felony murder charge with evidence of a robbery that has been twice dismissed for insufficient evidence undermines the very purpose" of the legal process.
Prosecutors could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Washington's attorney in the appeal, Handy Horiye of San Diego, said his client has already served 4 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence in Tehachapi State Prison. Horiye said he sent a letter Tuesday to Washington--whom he has never met--telling him about the appellate court's favorable ruling.
'Not a Technicality'
"This is not a technicality," Horiye said of the ruling. "This hinges on the sufficiency of the evidence against my client. And it shows that if the court has dismissed a charge based on robbery, the prosecution can't then turn around and make that robbery the basis for a felony first-degree murder charge."
The evidence of robbery and murder against Washington was "entirely circumstantial," the appellate justices stated in their ruling.
Horiye said, "I don't know actually if he really did (kill Prince), but it's clear that there wasn't enough evidence against him to prove it."