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Court voids death case

Three prosecutors, including Judge Lance Ito, failed to turn over confession in killing, state justices rule.

May 06, 2008|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court found Monday that a San Quentin inmate was wrongly sentenced to death in 1982 for murder because Los Angeles district attorneys -- including current Superior Court Judges Lance A. Ito and Frederick Horn -- withheld a confession to the killing by their star witness.

Adam Miranda was convicted in 1982 of the murder of Gary Black at a Los Angeles mini-mart. He also was charged with a second murder in the stabbing death of Robert Hosey, making Miranda eligible for the death penalty.

The main witness on the Hosey charge against Miranda was Joe Saucedo, a convict.

But even as Saucedo was testifying against Miranda, the prosecutors had a letter in which Saucedo confessed that he had committed the crime, Miranda's lawyers told the Supreme Court in their petition.

Then-Deputy Dist. Atty. Ito, who is now a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge best known for presiding over O.J. Simpson's murder trial, placed this letter in Miranda's file without disclosing its contents to Miranda's lawyers, the court determined.

During their investigation, Miranda's lawyers found four more witnesses who testified that Saucedo had confessed to them he was the killer. The district attorney's office knew about the confessions while seeking the death penalty against Miranda, his attorneys said.

The California Supreme Court agreed and determined that the death penalty sentence was improper.

The letter in which Saucedo made his confession is referred to as the "Montez letter" because it was written by inmate Larry Montez.

The letter contradicted Saucedo's testimony at Miranda's trial that Miranda had stabbed Hosey while Saucedo tried to stop him.

" . . . We conclude that a reasonable probability -- that is, a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding -- exists that if the Montez letter had been disclosed prior to [Miranda's] trial, the outcome of the penalty phase would have been different," the court wrote in its decision.

Besides Ito, the other prosecutors were Curt Hazell, now a special operations assistant district attorney in Los Angeles, and Horn, now an Orange County Superior Court judge.

Ito said in a hearing that he remembered seeing the letter but did not know why it was never turned over to the defense. Horn said that when he took over the case after Ito, he didn't remember seeing the letter, and Hazell, who took over after Horn, said he didn't either. Horn and Hazell said they assumed all relevant material had already been turned over to the defense.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said Monday that prosecutors will not decide for at least 60 days whether to retry the penalty phase of the case.

George Hedges and other anti-death penalty lawyers who took over the case 20 years ago after Miranda had been convicted, originally had no idea the Saucedo confessions existed, they said Monday.

After a two-year fight in federal court, the defense team finally was able to look at the district attorney's files, which contained the letters, they said.

"The Miranda case represents yet another indictment of the death penalty," Hedges said. "We have been through a 20-year struggle to locate evidence the D.A.'s office intentionally withheld that showed our client did not commit the murder that placed him on death row 26 years ago."

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amanda.covarrubias@latimes.com

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