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Court Overturns Decision to Throw Out Killer's Death Sentence

Crime: Family rejoices, saying they finally have closure. Defense attorney warns more appeals are likely.

July 23, 1996|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An appellate court has reinstated a jury's death sentence against a parolee who had been free from prison just one month when he abducted a Santa Clarita man at gunpoint, robbed him, then shot him execution-style in 1992.

The decision, handed down late Friday by the state 2nd District Court of Appeal, overturns an April 1994 decision by Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Leon Kaplan throwing out a jury's verdict that Scott Forrest Collins be executed for the kidnapping, robbery and murder of Fred D. Rose.

Sharon Rose, widow of the slain man, screamed with joy when she heard the news Monday afternoon. Her two daughters, Heather and Amy, cried, while her son, Justin, said he was pleased.

"I don't have the words to say how happy I am that Scott Collins is getting the death penalty," Sharon Rose said. "He won't ever hurt anyone else again."

Rose expressed relief that she had "gotten closure of the justice part of this." But Collins' defense attorney, Bruce Hill, said he expected many more appeals to come.

The case, he said, "will probably continue for the lifetime of us all."

Collins was convicted of abducting Rose at gunpoint as he left his office in Lancaster on Jan. 23, 1992, and forcing him to remove cash from an automatic teller machine at a bank in Northridge before shooting him.

The jury that heard the case recommended death on Nov. 2, 1993. Sentencing was delayed for several months.

Kaplan overturned the death sentence the following April. He ruled that the deliberating jurors had improperly used protractors and string to reenact the crime, and that one juror had attempted a reenactment on his home computer. He ordered a new penalty phase in the trial to determine Collins' punishment.

The judge's controversial--and rare--decision drew angry criticism from the prosecutor in the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino, as well as from Rose's friends and family.

"These are beautiful people," D'Agostino said of the family in an interview Monday. "They make the Beaver Cleaver family look like gangsters."

The controversy also led to a brief and unsuccessful recall campaign against the judge, who later removed himself from the case, his first death penalty trial.

In reinstating the death sentence, appellate court Justices William J. Masterson, Spencer Vaino and Reuben A. Ortega found that jurors' use of the string and protractor to determine the angle of the shot was not improper. The justices also found that while one juror's use of his home computer was technically improper, it did not rise to the level of reversible error.

When Kaplan overturned the verdict, he removed himself from the case. That decision--to take himself off the case because of the criticism--presents an unprecedented situation, defense attorney Hill said. While the case would normally return to the trial court for formal sentencing, Kaplan has made himself unavailable, which might require another judge to study the transcript. And that situation, Hill said, could open another avenue for appeal.

Kaplan had no comment, according to a court spokesman.

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