A federal appeals court Thursday reversed a convicted murderer's 1987 death sentence, saying the jury may have been confused about whether the man would have been eligible for parole if sentenced any other way.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new sentencing proceeding for Bruce Wayne Morris, 44, who was convicted of killing a man who had picked him up while he was hitchhiking from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe in 1985. The court upheld Morris' conviction.
During the penalty phase of Morris' 1987 trial, jurors were given written instructions that at one point stated that Morris, if not sentenced to death, would face prison for life with the possibility of parole. The instruction should have said the life prison term would be without the possibility of parole.
The error, said Judge Susan P. Graber in the three-member appeals panel's unanimous ruling, "is too obvious, the likelihood of prejudice too great, and the stakes are too high to conclude the error was harmless."