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3 Killers Chuckle as Judge Sentences Them to Death

Crime: Gang members show no remorse for murdering three Pasadena trick-or-treaters in 1993.

January 22, 1997|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the defendants chatted and chuckled, a Superior Court judge sentenced three gang members to death Tuesday for the ambush killings of three Pasadena trick-or-treaters, slayings that still haunt the city.

Herbert McClain, 28, Lorenzo Newborn, 26, and Karl Holmes, 21, "intentionally extinguished the budding lives of three young men of exceptional promise, then drove away while giving a thumbs up sign and boasted of their deeds," Judge J.D. Smith said in handing down the sentence.

The 1993 killings were a case of gang revenge gone wrong, which left the broken bodies of three innocent boys lying on the sidewalk just yards from home, with Halloween candy scattered among the carnage. They spawned dramatic changes in the way Pasadena combats gang crime, and the three-year legal odyssey, highlighted by the expletive-laced courtroom behavior of the defendants, riveted the attention of parents across the Southland.

That tangled courtroom saga ended quietly Tuesday, with only the judge's stern voice and the defendants' bemused mutterings punctuating a tense silence.

"The victims were slain in front of their families and siblings," Smith said. "The fact that a mother saw her ant-infested child on the ground, and that two other mothers that evening were told their children were murdered, only compounds the incurably ghastly harm caused."

Smith's words, repeated as he sentenced each defendant, did not appear to alter the cool gazes of the killers. The three gang members stared into space, occasionally whispering to their attorneys and each other. None spoke in his own defense, and none of their family members spoke on their behalf.

Newborn chuckled at various times during the sentencing, leading Smith to ask him: "You happy about all this?" There was no reply.

Only when they were led from the courtroom in shackles did cracks appear in the killers' facades, with Holmes calling out his love to his family and asking his wife, Wanda, to bring their 3-year-old son to visit.

Wanda Holmes, who believes her husband was railroaded by conviction-hungry prosecutors, said she understood his demeanor. "You have to laugh to keep from crying," she said.

Prosecutors and the families of the slain children had a different interpretation. "Their demeanor in court is one-tenth as brutal as their behavior on the streets," Deputy Dist. Atty. Antony Myers said.

Deborah Bush, a former crime scene technician with the Pasadena Police Department, who saw the corpse of her son Stephen Coats the night of the slayings, said: "I was hoping maybe for them to say they changed, and maybe had some remorse."

Bush's other son, Kenneth Coats, who survived the shootings, said he didn't mind the indifference of the convicted murderers. "For them to sit up there and make like they're really hard-core, it really didn't affect me," said Kenneth, now 16. "They know, and I know, that they're not going to make it."

But the case will first be appealed to the state Supreme Court, and prosecutors say they have no idea when the three will actually be executed.

Though they will soon be transferred from Men's Central Jail to death row at San Quentin prison, it can take more than a decade to exhaust the appeals process before an execution, experts say.

Prosecutors alleged that McClain and his friends were out to avenge the killing of a gang associate when they spotted a group of eight boys heading home from a Halloween party. One had a blue bandanna tucked into his pocket, which the attackers mistook for an emblem of their rival gang, the Crips.

The gang members cut loose with two bursts of gunfire. Killed were Stephen Coats and Reggie Crawford, both 14, and Edgar Evans, 13. The death of the promising students stunned Pasadena, leading the city to start a unique program in which gang members were forbidden by court order from loitering on the streets.

Although there was little hard evidence to tie them to the shootings and it was unclear who pulled the trigger, the three were convicted on three counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder in December 1995. It was McClain's own testimony that he was seeking revenge that night that helped tip the balance, jurors said. Two other men linked to the killings pleaded guilty earlier and were given suspended sentences.

The original jury deadlocked over whether to sentence McClain, Newborn and Holmes to death or life in prison. Prosecutors opted to continue to seek the death penalty, impaneled a new jury and conducted a mini-trial last year. The new jury reached its decision on Halloween, the third anniversary of the killings, recommending death.

Smith had the option Tuesday of sentencing the men to life in prison without parole. But it became clear that he would not show mercy.

McClain stared impassively at Smith as the jurist read his sentence. Then Smith read the same statement to Newborn, who fidgeted and chuckled throughout the presentation, chatting with his lawyer and shaking Holmes' hand when Smith finished.

"Good luck to you, Mr. Newborn," Smith said.

"Thank you sir," Newborn deadpanned.

"Mr. Holmes, are you ready to proceed?" Smith asked the final defendant.

"Bring it on," Holmes replied.

Wanda Holmes cried softly as the judge sentenced her husband to death.

"I love you all," he said to her and his father as deputies led him from the courtroom.

Outside, Wanda Holmes told a throng of reporters that she believed the witnesses against her husband were not credible and were out for the $40,000 reward. And she cautioned reporters against being fooled by the defendants' bravado inside the courtroom.

"I know they're in that cell right now, crying their hearts out," she said.

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