SANTA CLARITA — Friends of a slain local man are planning a recall campaign against a judge who rejected a jury's recommendation that the convicted murderer receive the death penalty.
In April, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Leon Kaplan ordered a new sentencing hearing for Scott Forrest Collins, who was found guilty of the execution-style murder of Fred Rose. Rose's friends contend that the judge disregarded the jury's recommendation because of his personal objections to the death penalty.
"What happened was so shocking to most of us it really motivated us to look at the system," said Fred Beach, a friend of Rose and one of the organizers of the Santa Clarita-based Rights of Survivors Everywhere group, also known as ROSE.
Beach said a new penalty-phase hearing will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and will be needlessly painful for Rose's family.
Collins was convicted Sept. 30, 1993, in Van Nuys Superior Court of kidnaping Rose in Lancaster and forcing him to drive to North Hollywood, where a jogger found him with fatal bullet wounds in the head. In November, the jury recommended that Collins receive the death penalty instead of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Kaplan, in a prepared statement issued Tuesday, said his ruling was based on legal, not personal, factors.
"Had (I) not followed the law, the case would have been sent back on appeal years later, after witnesses are lost and memories are forgotten," he said in the statement.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino countered that the judge made comments during the case that convinced her he didn't want to sentence Collins to death.
"One day he said to me, 'Why don't you let God make that decision, when this defendant should die?' " she said. "I told him, 'Because God didn't let Scott Collins decide when Fred Rose should die.' "
Kaplan said his decision not to issue the death penalty was partly based on his determination that two jurors acted improperly during deliberations by using a string and protractor to show that Rose was killed execution-style. This demonstration possibly influenced other jurors to recommend the death sentence, he believed.
But Greg Beckman Sr., one of the jurors who participated in the demonstration, said it did not affect deliberations and that he believes Kaplan is using that ruling to cover up his true motives.
"I don't think he's a bad judge. I think he's a misguided judge," Beckman said. "I don't think he understood fully the obligations he had to our legal system."
Support for Kaplan was expressed by former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Ed Davis, who in Kaplan's prepared statement said: "Please do not sign this petition. Judge Kaplan is a firm and fair judge. We need him on the bench."
Rose's widow, Sharon Rose, has moved out of state with their three children. In a telephone interview, she expressed support for the recall campaign. "It's for the next victim of Judge Leon Kaplan," she said. "It may be too late for us, but we don't want anybody else to be victimized."
Recall petitions against judges are rare, said Grace Romero, a spokeswoman for the county registrar-recorder's office.
She said the only other such recalls she remembers in her 15 years with the department were two unsuccessful attempts in 1992 and 1993 to recall Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin, who generated widespread controversy by sentencing a Korean-born grocer to probation in the killing of an African American teen-age girl.
ROSE organizers acknowledge that because the case is not well known, collecting the more than 307,000 signatures necessary to force a recall election will be a daunting task. They hope to mount a campaign to make the case better known.
Beach said he expects the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office to approve the circulation of the petitions by the end of the month. ROSE will have 160 days from the approval date to collect the signatures.