The California Supreme Court on Monday overturned the death sentence of a man who murdered three former co-workers at a Tustin auto parts store, saying the trial judge had prejudiced the jury when he "poked fun" at the defense.
The court voted 5 to 2 to reverse the death sentence of Gregory Allen Sturm but affirmed the murder convictions. Sturm was 19 when he shot to death three employees at a Super Shops outlet during a 1990 robbery.
During the 1992 penalty phase of the trial, Orange County Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin made inaccurate statements about the case and belittled defense witnesses, conveying to the jury "the message that the court was allied with the prosecution," the justices found.
McCartin made his own objections to the defense more than 30 times and accused the defense lawyer of trying to sneak in improper evidence.
The 1992 death penalty phase trial was Sturm's second -- the first deadlocked 10 to 2 against execution and in favor of life in prison without parole.
The state attorney general's office, which handles death penalty appeals, has not decided whether to ask for a rehearing of Sturm's case. If it does not, the Orange County district attorney will retry the penalty phase and seek death again, Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Kang Schroeder said.
"This was an extremely coldblooded type of crime. It merited the death penalty more than 10 years ago, and it's certainly the type of case we're seeking the death penalty on today," she said.
Legal experts said the Sturm case was significant because reversals by the normally conservative state Supreme Court were rare and indicated the justices were concerned about fairness of procedures surrounding the death penalty.
The reversal comes at a time that the U.S. Supreme Court and the state of California are considering whether lethal injection is more humane than other methods of execution.
Sturm was high on cocaine Aug. 19, 1990, when he robbed the auto parts store so he could buy more drugs. Sturm bound Darrell Esgar, 22, Chad Chadwick, 22, and Russell Williams, 21, and shot them at close range to eliminate witnesses. He fled with $1,100.
He was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and robbery and one count of burglary.
Associate Public Defender William Kelley, Sturm's lawyer, said Monday that the reversal didn't surprise him. "I predicted it a long time ago," he said. "It was somebody with a black robe deciding he was going to be a prosecutor."
McCartin's actions prejudiced the jury from the start, the Supreme Court found.
During jury selection for the second penalty phase trial, McCartin told prospective panelists that Sturm's premeditation was a "gimme." But the trial jury did not return a verdict finding the actions premeditated.
In another instance, the justices found, McCartin remarked that a defense witness, a clinical psychologist, had a "tendency to add" to her testimony and that she embellished her answers.
Reached at his home in Bass Lake, McCartin, who is retired, said the reversal didn't surprise him.
"I expected it, because I don't like psychologists," he said, adding that he didn't care for the defense attorney's style. "Kelley got under my skin."
Death penalty convictions are automatically appealed, and people almost always claim judicial misconduct, said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor, though few actually win on that issue.
But McCartin's behavior was over the top, she said. "It was just inappropriate," she said. "I think they'll be teaching this one at judicial college."