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Court Reviewing Sentence of Death

Justice: Jury never heard what lawyer calls 'radioactive' evidence in the defendant's favor.

July 08, 2002|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Superior Court jury had little trouble recommending that Los Angeles street gang member Adam Miranda be put to death.

Jurors viewed him on videotape killing an Eagle Rock store clerk and wounding another employee in a 1980 robbery. They also heard him testify that he shot the victims because they were rude.

Later, during the trial's penalty phase, the prosecution's key witness testified that he saw Miranda murder a Frog Town neighborhood drug dealer by stabbing him in the face 11 times over a $10 dispute. Jurors took 40 minutes to decide Miranda should die.

Two decades later, the California Supreme Court is reconsidering Miranda's death sentence based on defense allegations that Los Angeles County prosecutors--including Lance Ito, who went on to fame as the judge in the O.J. Simpson murder trial--engaged in misconduct.

The high court recently directed a San Diego judge to sit as a special master to determine whether the deputy district attorneys failed to disclose crucial evidence that they had obtained well before the 1982 trial. The evidence was an October 1980 handwritten letter by a County Jail inmate saying penalty phase witness Joseph Saucedo admitted to him from an adjoining cell that he--not Miranda--stabbed the drug dealer.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings require prosecutors to disclose to defense lawyers any material they have that would help discredit the testimony of a witness or help prove innocence.

While stopping short of saying the letter was deliberately withheld, the special master, Roger W. Krauel, ruled in late May that defense lawyers never received it from the prosecution.

The high court justices now will use Krauel's finding to help determine whether the death sentence for Miranda, now 42, should be reversed.

The letter would have been "positively radioactive" for Saucedo's credibility while testifying before the jury, said George Hedges, Miranda's current lawyer. He said it could have dissuaded the jury from sentencing Miranda to die, because Saucedo was the only witness to provide a compelling and complete firsthand account of the grisly second murder.

Ito, now a Superior Court judge, said ethics rules prohibit him from commenting on pending cases. But in court papers he said he clearly remembers the letter, and in testimony before Krauel he agreed it should have been turned over to Miranda's lawyers. But he could not recall whether he did. Ito said he had an open file policy at the time that allowed defense lawyers to freely examine the prosecution file.

Lawyers for the state attorney general, who are representing the district attorney's office, minimize the importance of the letter. They argue, among other things, that it is hearsay and does not prove Saucedo actually admitted to the killing.

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Conflicting Statements

Although the letter appears on its face to clear Miranda of the drug dealer's killing, police also collected statements from witnesses and informants that implicated Miranda or Saucedo or both but were never introduced at trial.

Moreover, six months after he was sentenced to die for the shooting of store clerk Gary Black, 33, Miranda struck an agreement with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the drug dealer's killing. His lawyer says he would have never agreed to the deal if he had known about the letter.

Miranda's case is now in its fifth post-trial review by state appellate courts. It is also being reviewed in federal court.

The California Supreme Court is being asked by Miranda's lawyers to reverse the death penalty decision because without the letter, they say, he did not receive a fair trial during the penalty phase.

If the sentence is reversed and prosecutors decide to retry the penalty phase, they might have an uphill battle. In 83% of such cases, defendants are not resentenced to death, either because the prosecution chooses not to seek it or the jury doesn't return a death verdict.

The case's twisted legal path began Sept. 27, 1980, when Black was shot and killed. Miranda and a co-defendant were arrested soon after. Miranda and Saucedo, who was not involved in the store clerk's shooting, were also charged with the Sept. 13, 1980, stabbing death of drug dealer Robert L. Hosey, 20.

Ito was the initial prosecutor in both cases, which moved through the court system separately.

The crucial handwritten letter came to Ito's attention a few weeks later when an LAPD detective received it from a jailer and identified inmate Larry Montez as the author, according to the detective's court declaration. He said he turned it over to Ito, who placed it in a manila envelope and put it in the prosecution's case file.

In the letter, Montez said Saucedo told him that he had stabbed Hosey, threw the knife into the Los Angeles River and had arranged for his girlfriend to tell police he was with her at a movie.

In February 1981, the Hosey charges against Miranda were dismissed after a preliminary hearing for lack of evidence, leaving Saucedo the lone defendant.

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