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Jury Acquits Defendant in Fatal Shooting : Courts: Last summer's drive-by shooting in Northwest Pasadena killed one 22-year-old man and sent another to County Jail for five months. The one-week trial revolved around the contradictory testimony of witnesses.

December 23, 1990|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It may have seemed like just another drive-by shooting on a hot summer night in Northwest Pasadena, but the mothers of both victim and suspect were left wondering what their sons did to deserve such a fate.

Last week, a Pasadena Superior Court jury ended the anguish for one of the women. The other was left with the knowledge that her son's killer--whoever he may be--is walking free.

Jurors deliberated less than an hour before acquitting Michael Peterson, 22, of Monrovia. Police said he had gang connections, but his mother denied it.

He was freed Thursday after spending five months in County Jail, where he had been held in lieu of $100,000 bail.

"I seen my life as being gone," said Peterson, adding that he plans to move out of the area, study computer programming and spend time with his 6-month-old son. "Now I've been given a life back."

Peterson was accused of killing Jimmy Wilburn, 22, on July 22, as Wilburn sat with some friends in front of a suspected gang hangout on Del Monte Street. Police said Wilburn, too, had gang affiliations, but his mother also denied any ties.

The murder was one of nearly 500 homicides in Los Angeles County attributed to gang members since the beginning of the year. But its toll on the mothers of Peterson and Wilburn was anything but routine.

"We were in prison, too," said Sherry Peterson, 48, who had insisted from the beginning that her son was innocent. "It's terribly frustrating when you know something is wrong, but you have no control over it."

Wilburn's mother, Alice Rhodes, said she was not surprised by the verdict, but remains convinced of Peterson's guilt.

"He had a very, very good lawyer," said Rhodes, 45. "But I still know he killed my son. . . . I guess I can't prove it. It's just my instinct."

The one-week trial revolved around the contradictory testimony of several witnesses, who police said identified Peterson as the shooter. However, in court, they denied having done so.

Officers attributed the discrepancy to the witnesses' fear of being labeled a snitch, which is often considered a death sentence on the streets.

"It's a constant problem," Lt. Van Anthony said. "(Peterson) is going free because . . . basically, the witnesses were afraid to testify."

But Peterson's attorney successfully poked holes in the police investigation. He argued that the witnesses who implicated Peterson did so under coercion from investigators and could not possibly have seen his face on the dimly lighted street.

"In July, on a late night on a dark street, someone yelled out the words: 'That looks like Michael Peterson's car,' " his attorney, Guy O'Brien, told the jury. "That got twisted and transformed to: 'That is his car, that is Michael Peterson.'

"The police did not investigate the facts," O'Brien said. "They exploited that rumor into a formal murder charge."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Lee contended that Peterson had acted like a guilty man when he lied to detectives by telling them he had been with a female friend in Los Angeles on the night of the shooting.

"When Michael Peterson lied, he was hiding something," Lee said. "He was hiding the fact that he was there (on Del Monte Street)."

O'Brien conceded that Peterson should not have lied, but said that the defendant had been fearful of the investigators and could not recall where he had been.

Later, Peterson said he remembered that he had been home that night. His mother and sister backed his alibi.

"The only way for the police to get off their butts and catch the killer is for Michael Peterson to be acquitted in this case," O'Brien said.

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