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New trial granted in 1981 O.C. death

January 27, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A man convicted 24 years ago in the murder of an elderly man in Newport Beach has been granted a new trial by a federal judge who said he was unable to participate in his own defense because of drugs the jail staff administered.

James Andrew Melton, who has been on death row for almost a quarter of a century, will be returned to Orange County for retrial unless the state attorney general asks U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi to reconsider his ruling or appeals the case. Officials at the attorney general's office declined to comment Friday.

Melton cried when informed of Takasugi's 79-page ruling, said his attorney, Robert F. Kane.

"This ruling gives him the trial he never had," Kane said.

Melton was 29 when he answered an ad placed in a gay newspaper by Anthony DeSousa, 77, a retired hairdresser who had advertised for a lover.

His battered nude body was found with an electrical cord tied around its neck.

Police found Melton in possession of DeSousa's car and arrested him. He was convicted Dec. 1, 1982, and sentenced to death March 18, 1983.

According to Takasugi's ruling, issued last week, during his trial Melton was given daily doses of 750 milligrams of Mellaril, an antipsychotic medicine, and 100 milligrams of Phenergan, which can act as a sedative.

"These medications had a profound affect on Melton's physical and mental functioning.... It is impossible to determine whether he understood the evidence against him," said Takasugi, citing medical experts who testified during the appeal.

Takasugi also criticized Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald, who presided over Melton's trial, for failing to note that he was not involved in his defense.

Takasugi said Fitzgerald admitted having "pro-prosecution leanings" but said he was fair to Melton, whom Fitzgerald said "was at the top of the list of deserving souls for execution."

Fitzgerald testified at the appeals hearing that Melton appeared competent at trial, a conclusion he reached by observing him at the defense table. But Takasugi said "Fitzgerald's testimony establishes only that Melton remained awake and was compliant and non-disruptive."

Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment.

Takasugi also said Richard Bonner, Melton's trial attorney, was ineffective and criticized him for not paying closer attention to the medication given his client.

"Competent defense counsel would have at least attempted to find out why their client required such powerful antipsychotic medications," Takasugi said.

Bonner is no longer a practicing attorney. He could not be reached for comment.

Kane filed Melton's first appeal in 1989, and the California Supreme Court denied it four months later. He filed another appeal in federal court in Los Angeles the same year.

It took more than 17 years for the court to conduct an evidentiary hearing and issue the ruling.

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