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Court Grants Death Row Reprieve in '79 Slaying of USC Student

September 22, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Thursday gave a reprieve to death row inmate Stevie Lamar Fields, who is scheduled to die for the 1979 murder of USC student librarian Rosemary Janet Cobb.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new hearing by the full court on Fields' request for a new sentence.

The ruling overturns a December 2005 decision by a three-judge panel that the execution could go forward.

Fields said the jury foreman tainted proceedings by reciting biblical passages, including "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" and "He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death" during the penalty deliberations.

Six years ago, Dickran Tevrizian, a U.S. district judge in L.A., ruled that the deliberations had been "contaminated" and "rendered fundamentally unfair by the jury's consideration of extrinsic evidence." The three-judge panel reversed his ruling, saying the biblical quotations were not extrinsic but "the kind of common knowledge which most jurors are presumed to possess."

Attorney David Olson, who represents Fields, argued that the ruling by the three-judge panel "cannot be reconciled with ... jurisprudence requiring jurors to base their verdicts only on the evidence at trial and the court's instructions."

On Thursday, Olson said he was very pleased that the court had ordered a rehearing with a larger panel of judges.

Olson said he was not sure when the re-hearing will be held but it probably would be in several months.

Kristofer Jorstad, a deputy attorney general who had urged the 9th Circuit to let the original ruling stand, said he was disappointed with the decision. "We believe that the panel decision was a sound and sensible application of the law," Jorstad said.

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