A jury unanimously recommended the death penalty Wednesday for a man convicted of murdering a Los Angeles police officer during a 1983 traffic stop.
The jury recommendation followed a 5-week trial and 2 1/2 days of jury deliberations to determine punishment for Kenneth Gay, 42. He was first sentenced to death after his 1985 murder trial, but the California Supreme Court, leaving his guilty verdict intact, overturned his sentence in 1998, finding that he had been represented by an incompetent lawyer.
Inside the standing-room-only San Fernando Valley courtroom, uniformed Los Angeles Police Department officers came to support the family of slain Officer Paul Verna, a Medal of Valor winner.
"It gives me faith in the justice system," Verna's widow, Sandy Jackson, said at the conclusion of the hearing. She brought her son, Bryce Verna, who was 9 at the time of his father's murder and who is now an LAPD officer.
"It's a triumph of the justice system that no matter what it takes, justice prevails," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence Morrison. "Mr. Gay earned his death penalty with the first shot he fired at Paul Verna."
In 1983, Verna stopped the car in which Gay was riding for a traffic violation. Authorities allege that another passenger, Raynard Cummings, fired at Verna and handed the gun to Gay, who then shot the officer five more times. Cummings was also convicted of first-degree murder in 1985 and is on death row.
During the second penalty trial, witnesses testified about Gay's violent past. Among them were robbery victims who tearfully recounted how the ex-con had beaten them. Cumming's wife and others testified they saw Gay shoot Verna.
Gay's lawyers unsuccessfully tried to argue that Gay did not deserve the death penalty because Cummings fired all the shots. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt excluded all evidence that would challenge the 1985 jury's finding that Gay had personally used a firearm.
Defense attorneys said they were disappointed but not surprised by the verdict. "The jury did not hear all the evidence we had, the eyewitnesses who implicated Cummings as the sole shooter. They did not hear [Cumming's] four confessions, told to deputy sheriffs, that he fired all six shots," said Deputy Public Defender Mark Zuckman.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Jonas said, "There has never been and never was any shred of doubt about the guilt of Mr. Gay. Two different juries heard this story."
Sgt. John Amott of the LAPD's Valley Traffic Division said Verna was not only exemplary in his job and as a family man, but was popular among his colleagues.
"He had his whole life ahead of him, snuffed out," Amott said.
Gay is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 4.