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State Appeals Court Overturns Man's Conviction in 1981 Triple Murder Case

Ruling: Judges say the prosecution left out information about a key witness' criminal history. Now after years in prison, the defendant could be freed or retried.

July 12, 2002|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state appeals court has overturned a conviction in a 1981 Pasadena triple murder, concluding that prosecutors should have uncovered information about a key witness that could have undermined his credibility and led to an acquittal.

The ruling came in the case of Anthony Stacy, who was convicted by a Los Angeles County jury of shooting to death a man, a pregnant woman and her viable fetus during a robbery of a drug house.

The ruling, centering on the background of witness Charles E. Jones, a veteran police informant, calls for Stacy to be either freed or retried.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, which prosecuted the case, said her office had not yet seen the appellate court ruling and would have no comment.

Prosecutors had only two key witnesses at Stacy's 1983 trial. One was an alleged accomplice who said he helped plan the robbery and was in the house during the killings. He was given immunity for his testimony. The second was Jones, a jailhouse informant who said Stacy repeatedly confessed the killings to him while they were in adjoining cells. Jones, who was himself being held on a murder charge, testified that he came forward out of outrage because he could not stomach the killing of a pregnant woman.

A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal ruled unanimously Wednesday that prosecutors should have unearthed and disclosed to Stacy's defense attorney more information about Jones' lengthy criminal record. Jones had frequently cut deals with police and prosecutors in Kentucky for leniency for a number of his own crimes.

The district attorney's office had obtained for itself and disclosed to the defense a slim California rap sheet for Jones that contained only a vague reference to his criminal record in Kentucky, rather than a full FBI report.

It was not until 1996, after Stacy had been behind bars for more than a decade, that an attorney appointed by the court to represent Stacy's interests dug into Jones' Kentucky past and found dozens of criminal charges.

The attorney, Robert Berke, said he flew to Kentucky and met Jones, who was once again in prison. According to Berke, Jones admitted that he had lied at Stacy's trial and that he had come forward, not as a good citizen, but in the hope of winning greater leniency than he had already been promised for cooperating against a co-defendant in his own murder case. The appeals court said he had been promised to be allowed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

A Kentucky police detective also told Berke he had used Jones in 15 to 30 cases in the 1970s and provided him with leniency. But the detective said that in 1978, after learning that Jones had provided him with false information, he stopped using him as an informant.

The Court of Appeal decision, written by Justice J. Gary Hastings and concurred with by Justices Daniel Curry and Norman Epstein, said that if jurors had known Jones' full background, they "may have totally disregarded his testimony."

The prosecution then would have been left to rely on a mainly uncorroborated account by Stacy's alleged accomplice, James Dean. Dean testified under a grant of immunity that Stacy accidentally shot him in the leg during the robbery and that he then hobbled out of a room where Stacy held victims Leroy Kelly and Debra Jones at gunpoint. He said he then heard shots.

There were inconsistencies in Dean's account. For example, he said he lent Stacy his .22-caliber revolver that day and never got it back. But other confederates testified that Dean retained and later sold the gun.

The district attorney's office initially sought the death penalty for Stacy. But jurors who found him guilty of murders with special circumstances decided instead that he should serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Two years ago, Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins dismissed the special circumstances, making Stacy eligible for parole. She said prosecutors had an obligation to dig into their informant's past and share it with the defense. But she found that even if the informant's credibility had been compromised, enough evidence remained from Dean and others to hold Stacy responsible for participating in the robbery-murders.

This week's decision evaluated the possible outcome differently. Justice Hastings wrote that jurors "may have found that the remaining corroborative evidence was insufficient to overcome any doubts it may have had regarding Dean's credibility and concluded there was reasonable doubt whether Stacy was present at the scene of the crimes."

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