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New Trial Is Granted in 1985 Killing

An appellate court panel says Harold Hall was denied due process by authorities' use of his dubious confession and a jailhouse informant.

September 11, 2003|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 20 years after he was first linked to a string of brutal slayings, a Los Angeles man has been granted a new trial on the one murder conviction still holding him in prison.

In a sometimes biting opinion, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Harold Hall was denied due process when Los Angeles police and county prosecutors used a dubious confession and a jailhouse informant to convict Hall of the 1985 murder of Nola K. Duncan.

The court's 2-1 ruling called it "unreasonable" for the California Court of Appeal to uphold Hall's conviction in view of the "scant evidence on which the conviction was based."

"There was absolutely no physical or forensic evidence connecting Hall to the body or the alley in which it was found," the court said in its 27-page ruling, released Monday "The only other evidence of Hall's guilt was his curious and largely uncorroborated confession, which was shown to contain multiple inconsistencies and inaccuracies."

Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen. Mary Sanchez, who handled the appeal before the 9th Circuit panel, said she was disappointed by the ruling and will petition for a rehearing. Deputy Dist. Atty. David Demerjian, who prosecuted Hall, expressed surprise, saying the evidence was sufficient to convict Hall, who was sentenced six years ago to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Though Hall could not be reached for comment, his attorney, William J. Genego, praised the court for ordering a new trial.

"I believe that his conviction was a grave injustice, and I am relieved to see it has been corrected," Genego said. "He really did not receive a fair trial, and that is what the court recognized."

Hall, now 36, has spent half of his life behind bars.

In 1985, the teenager was in County Jail after his arrest in Hollywood on suspicion of robbery and was preparing to enter a plea of no contest when Los Angeles police, acting on a jailhouse tip, questioned him about the killings of Duncan, 35, and her brother, David Rainey, 26.

They were found stabbed to death -- at separate locations -- within hours of each other the morning of June 27. Rainey's body was slumped in the driver's seat of his convertible MG. His sister's body was dumped partially nude in an alley at 48th Street and Vermont Avenue, her body contorted in a way that suggested a sexual encounter.

During an interrogation that spanned hours, Hall confessed not only to those murders but also to involvement in an infamous October 1984 gang shooting that took five lives and came to be known as the 54th Street Massacre. Hall was one of those slightly injured in the panic that followed the shooting, in which two carloads of gang members opened fire on a group of partygoers outside a house.

Authorities eventually dismissed charges against Hall in the 54th Street shooting after he testified for the prosecution.

But over the course of years, they pressed the case against Hall for the murders of Duncan and her brother. And in 1992, he was convicted of both killings.

But two years later, an appeals court reversed Hall's conviction in the killing of Rainey, saying there was insufficient evidence linking him to the murder.

Since then, Hall has sought to overturn his conviction in Duncan's slaying.

In 1994, Superior Court Judge Alexander H. Williams, who presided over Hall's original case, granted him a retrial. But that decision was reversed by the state Court of Appeal.

In the 9th Circuit ruling this week, Judges Michael D. Hawkins and Donald P. Lay noted that Hall's original conviction was based "almost entirely on Hall's confession" while in custody on the robbery charge.

"The confession, however, was rather suspect as the subsequent police investigation revealed that various aspects of it were clearly untrue," the court said.

During his interrogation by LAPD Dets. Mark Arneson and Kenneth Crocker, the court noted, Hall said Duncan's rape and murder were instigated by an associate whose car was used to take the victim's body to the alley. But during the alleged accomplice's questioning by detectives, he denied any knowledge of the murders, and forensics tests failed to uncover any evidence linking the man's car to the crime.

Additionally, the court said, Hall had claimed that Duncan was raped and murdered in the back room of a beauty parlor near the alley. But at trial, the salon's owners testified that their business had no back room and that there was no sign of blood or other evidence that any crime had occurred there.

The owners also testified that they were never contacted by police about the murder. Det. Arneson, the court noted, later testified that he did not search the salon because he never believed it was the scene of the crime.

With authorities unable to find any physical evidence linking Hall to the murder, they relied on two documents provided by a jailhouse informant, Cornelius Lee, to corroborate Hall's confession, the 9th Circuit panel noted.

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