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Judge tosses out conviction in 1980 murder

He rules that three L.A. County prosecutors withheld evidence that their star witness had confessed to the fatal stabbing of a drug dealer.

February 28, 2009|Jack Leonard

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge tossed out a nearly 30-year-old murder conviction Friday after finding that prosecutors had violated the defendant's rights and withheld evidence that their star witness had confessed to the killing.

In a sharply worded ruling, Judge David S. Wesley said attorneys for Adam Miranda should have been told that witness Joe Saucedo claimed to others that he had stabbed a drug dealer.

"The defendant was clearly denied significant rights," Wesley said. "A competent defense attorney would have had a field day with Mr. Saucedo on the witness stand."

Among the prosecutors who handled the case were Lance Ito and Frederick P. Horn, now Superior Court judges in Los Angeles and Orange counties, respectively; and Curtis A. Hazell, now a top administrator in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

None returned calls seeking comment. Ethics rules prohibit judges from speaking publicly about pending cases.

Wesley's decision in the stabbing death of Robert Hosey in September 1980 closes another chapter in a long-running legal saga.

Miranda's attorneys have accused the district attorney's office of prosecutorial misconduct. They say prosecutors also failed to disclose that Saucedo was paid $1,350 and relocated.

"This kind of violation snaps the spine of the justice system," defense attorney Kerry R. Bensinger said after Friday's hearing.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Grace argued that prosecutors had not acted in bad faith and that each believed Miranda's attorneys were told the information.

Wesley did not rule on whether prosecutors intentionally withheld the evidence but said he probably would hold a hearing for each prosecutor to explain his actions if the district attorney's office decides to refile the murder charge.

Prosecutors initially charged Saucedo and Miranda with killing Hosey. Saucedo was ordered to stand trial at a preliminary hearing but later told prosecutors that Miranda was responsible for the killing.

Saucedo cut a deal that allowed him to plead to a lesser charge of assault with a deadly weapon and was given two years of probation in return for his testimony against Miranda.

Miranda, now 48, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after Saucedo testified against him at a preliminary hearing. Saucedo was the sole witness at the hearing.

Prosecutors also used Saucedo as a witness in a second murder case against Miranda.

In that case, Miranda was accused of gunning down an Eagle Rock convenience store clerk in a robbery two weeks after Hosey's death. A surveillance videotape showed Miranda fatally shooting the clerk, Gary Black, during a robbery at the store.

After Miranda's conviction, Saucedo also testified in the trial's penalty phase. That testimony supported the prosecution's claim that Miranda deserved execution because he also had killed Hosey. Miranda was sentenced to death.

During Miranda's appeals, his attorneys found a letter in the district attorney's case file in which a jail inmate told authorities that Saucedo had confessed to stabbing Hosey.

Ito, the initial prosecutor on both cases, said in previous hearings that he remembered the letter but did not know why it was never turned over to the defense.

Horn, who handled the preliminary hearing, said he didn't remember the letter. Neither did Hazell, who tried the case. The two men said they believed the defense had already been provided all relevant material on the case by the time they were involved.

The California Supreme Court unanimously overturned Miranda's death sentence last year, finding that prosecutors should have disclosed the letter and evidence about Saucedo's confession.

The district attorney's office opted not to seek the death penalty again.

On Friday, Wesley sentenced Miranda to life in prison without the possibility of parole for Black's murder.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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