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3rd Try at Death Penalty Weighed

Court: Man has been convicted of killing a guard. But juries have deadlocked over sentence.

July 31, 2001|DOUGLAS HABERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Juries have twice failed to decide whether the convicted killer of a Chino youth prison guard should be executed, and San Bernardino County prosecutors are struggling with whether to try for the death penalty a third time.

A judge declared a second mistrial in the penalty phase of the case Friday. Prosecutors said Monday that they would have to consider their prospects of convincing yet another jury that James Ferris, 29, deserves to die.

"The fact that two juries were unable to reach a decision is something that we'll weigh very heavily" in deciding what step to take next, said Richard Maxwell, chief deputy district attorney in the Rancho Cucamonga office. The case returns to court Aug. 13 when the prosecutors' decision should be announced, he said.

In October, Ferris was convicted in the Aug. 9, 1996, murder of Ineasie Baker, 42, at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility. The only other possible punishment for him would be life in prison without parole.

Ferris was found guilty of beating, stabbing and strangling Baker in a mop closet at the Chino lockup. Prosecutors said he feared his imminent transfer to an adult prison and, in an attempt to escape, killed Baker to get her keys, which authorities found hidden in a can of cleanser in his cell. He stuffed Baker's body into a trash can, hauled it past prison security and emptied it into a trash bin. Baker's body was found two days later in a Pomona landfill.

At the time, Ferris was in the youth prison for the 1989 murder of an Orange County woman who had taken him into her home. But Ferris was a "juice ward" at Stark, meaning he had the trust of guards and relative freedom of movement within the prison.

Ferris' conviction was celebrated by Baker's family, friends and supporters, but the penalty phase has proved tougher.

Death penalty cases are conducted in two phases. In the first, a jury decides whether the defendant is guilty. If the verdict is guilty, in the second phase the jury decides whether the defendant should be put to death or spend life in prison. A verdict for the death penalty must be unanimous.

The jury that convicted Ferris in October deadlocked 8 to 4 on the penalty, with the majority favoring death. Prosecutors decided to retry the penalty phase with a new jury.

The 12-member jury was evenly split, said Maxwell and David Negus, the chief deputy public defender who represented Ferris.

"They never got past lingering doubt," Negus said. "Some were not sure he was the sole participant" in the murder, he said. "Obviously, I did enough to save my client's life. I feel pretty good."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos, who has prosecuted the case since 1997, was on a vacation cruise Friday and didn't learn of the deadlock until Sunday. He was disappointed, he said.

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