The California Supreme Court Monday overturned the death sentence of a Hollywood man who has been awaiting execution for 15 years for killing three teenagers, including his half-sister, in 1984.
Instead of receiving a lethal injection, Mauricio Silva, 43, may now end up spending the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. The district attorney's office has the option of seeking a retrial of the penalty phase or accepting the life sentence.
The high court did not overturn Silva's murder conviction, but ruled that the verdict in the death penalty phase of his trial was tainted because a Latino was excluded from the panel.
Before Silva's 1984 murder rampage, he had served more than five years in prison for the manslaughter shooting of a 16-year-old boy. The month he was released on parole, Silva killed Walter P. Sanders and Monique Michelle Hilton, both 16. The teenage runaways were shot to death in two incidents in Lancaster and Pearblossom.
A little more than a week later, Silva stabbed and strangled his 17-year-old half-sister, Martha Kitzler.
Silva's initial trial in 1985 on the three murders ended with a deadlocked jury. In his 1986 retrial, the jury found him guilty and recommended that he be sentenced to death.
In appeals, Silva's defense lawyers said the prosecution, during jury selection, had improperly used peremptory challenges against five Latino prospective jurors.
Superior Court Judge Jean E. Matusinka "erroneously" permitted the prosector to explain his reasons for the challenges in a private conference, wrote Justice Joyce Kennard for the unanimous court.
The Supreme Court examined the prosecution's challenge of a prospective juror identified only as Jose M.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lonnie A. Felker said the decision by the high court was based on that exclusion.
"My personal feeling about it is that I did not then or did not now excuse a juror because of race," Felker said Monday. He said he excused Jose because he seemed "aggressive" and appeared disinclined to impose the death penalty.
"That scared me and so I excused him," Felker said.
A transcript of the voir dire proceedings did not substantiate the contentions, the court said. When Jose was asked for his opinion of the death penalty he had said, "Well I guess I have an opinion on it. I mean, it's the most--the hardest--oh, what's the word I'm looking for--punishment you can give."
When asked to clarify whether he was for or against the death penalty, Jose replied: "I would say I'm mixed. I would, you know, consider it and I would consider opposition to it."
He later said he was "possibly slightly for" the death penalty.
Times staff writer Maura Dolan contributed to this story.