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Prosecutor's Persistence in Triple Slaying Case Pays Off in Conviction : Criminal justice: Information from a killing in Los Angeles revived interest in the suspect, who was originally released for lack of evidence.

January 06, 1994|CHAU LAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY PARK — More than a year after his office had decided there was not enough evidence to file charges in a Monterey Park triple slaying, a persistent deputy district attorney managed to prosecute anyway--and obtained a conviction and death sentence.

"It's a relief," said the prosecutor, Terrence Terauchi, after a Superior Court judge in Compton sentenced Eric Lamont Hinton to death Dec. 10 in the drug-related killings.

After Hinton's initial arrest in the case, he was released due to lack of evidence: no weapon and a witness who couldn't identify him as the shooter. But more than a year later, Terauchi noticed similarities between another case he was preparing and the triple slaying.

As a result, Hinton, 24, of Lynwood, was convicted early last year of first-degree murder with special circumstances in the May 24, 1988, shooting deaths of Tenoa L. Stevenson, 26, of Altadena, Albert Brown, Jr., 24, of Pasadena, and Landis Barnes, 20, of Lynwood, a Navy officer who was on leave from the Long Beach naval base.

The three men were killed at the Best Western Monterey Park Inn during what police said was a drug deal Hinton had set up in order to rob them.

Steve Cunningham of Pasadena escaped by feigning death. He was a key witness for the prosecution.

According to Terauchi's theory of what happened in the motel room, Barnes and Cunningham were there as middlemen in the supposed drug transaction. Stevenson allegedly was the buyer and brought along his cousin, Brown. Hinton and a man he introduced as Steven Hicks supposedly had cocaine to sell.

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As Brown and Barnes were about to test what was fake cocaine, Terauchi said, they were shot in the head. Then, according to Terauchi, Hicks allegedly shot Stevenson; Hinton shot at Cunningham, but missed. Stevenson fell on Cunningham, who remained on the floor, feigning death. Hinton and Hicks then allegedly left the motel room with the money.

Minutes later, Stevenson staggered out of the motel onto Atlantic Boulevard near Emerson Avenue and bumped into his assailants. They chased Stevenson to a used-car lot next to the motel and killed him, the prosecutor said.

The man Hinton called Hicks was never arrested because Cunningham could not positively place him at the murder scene. Hicks reportedly moved out of state shortly afterward. Although Cunningham did place Hinton at the crime scene, he could not say whether Hinton had shot at anyone. Hinton maintained that Hicks had done all the shooting. The weapons used in the slayings were never recovered.

"Basically, we had a dead case," said Officer David Corrigan of the Monterey Park Police Department, who at the time was a detective investigating the killings.

The case lay dormant for nearly two years until Corrigan received a call from Terauchi sometime in late 1990.

At that point, Hinton was the suspect in the fatal shooting of Dwayne Reed, 29, of Los Angeles. And Terauchi, who was preparing that murder case against Hinton, noticed not only that the suspect had been arrested but released in a previous case, but that the bullets in both cases were similar.

Police said that on Aug. 9, 1989, Reed was pumping gas at a station on Imperial Highway when Hinton walked up and accused Reed of wanting to kill him. Witnesses said Reed, who knew Hinton, denied the allegation. Hinton then reportedly said, "I don't trust you" and shot Reed several times in the head.

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"The bullets that killed Reed have the same characteristics as the bullets in the Monterey Park shootings--same make, same caliber, same direction of twist and same numbers of lands and grooves. But we couldn't positively say it was the same gun," Corrigan said.

At the same time Terauchi's office filed charges against Hinton for the Reed shooting, it filed murder charges in the Monterey Park slayings.

"He's an absolute tenacious bulldog," said Corrigan of the Monterey Park prosecutor. "He grabbed onto the case no one wanted to touch and wouldn't let go."

Terauchi tried unsuccessfully to consolidate the cases. When a judge turned him down, he tried the Reed case. The jury hung, and Terauchi retried the case. On June 5, 1992, Hinton was found guilty of first-degree murder in Reed's death.

A few months later, court proceedings began against Hinton in the Monterey Park killings. Terauchi tried to introduce evidence from the Reed case to link Hinton to both, but his request was denied.

So with no more legal ammunition than the district attorney's office had had from the start, Terauchi went into trial on the Monterey Park case.

He introduced evidence that the bullets that killed Barnes and Brown came from different guns. Based upon the angles at which bullets were found in the bodies and in the motel room, Terauchi argued that Hicks could not have been the sole gunman.

The defense argued that Hinton was there to sell drugs on the night of the killings but was not involved in the shootings.

The jury found him guilty of all three murders.

"We were in shock when the jury came back in three days with a guilty verdict on all three counts," said Terauchi, who had used his vacation time to clear other cases so that he could focus all his attention on the Hinton case.

"Now that the trial is over, the real battle begins," said attorney Ronald Le Mieux, referring to the appeal process. Le Mieux was hired by Hinton's family to represent him during the penalty phase. Hinton was represented by two court-appointed attorneys during his trial.

"I am sure some of his convictions will be reversed," Le Mieux said.

But the victims' families consider the convictions and death penalty a closing to the case.

"We had to deal with this for five years," said Leon Barnes, Landis' father, who attended every day of the trial. "I am glad it's over and done with."

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