The California Supreme Court, which upholds the vast majority of capital sentences it reviews, decided unanimously Monday to overturn the death penalty for a convicted Long Beach murderer because a prospective juror was improperly removed for having ambivalent views on capital punishment.
In a ruling written by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, the state high court said that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Tomson T. Ong erred when he removed the potential juror after she said she was uncertain about her position on the death penalty but would impose it if justified.
"To exclude from a capital jury all those who will not promise to immovably embrace the death penalty in the case before them unconstitutionally biases the selection process," Werdegar wrote.
As long as a juror is capable of considering all sentence alternatives, including the death penalty, he or she is qualified to serve on a death penalty case, the court said.
The ruling requires Los Angeles County prosecutors either to ask another jury to sentence Kevin Darnell Pearson to death or to reduce his sentence to life without the possibility of parole. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said it has not yet reviewed the ruling.
Pearson was convicted in the killing of Penny Sigler, also known as Penny Keptra, who was raped, beaten and robbed of $6 in food stamps after leaving her home to go to the store about 11 p.m. on Dec. 19, 1998.
Pearson committed the crime with two other men and left the victim, whose right ear was partially torn off, nude and battered near a freeway embankment, the court said.
The court overturned two other death sentences in a separate case Dec. 4, breaking a pattern in which the justices had upheld nearly 50 capital judgments in a row.
A representative for Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris declined to comment on Monday's ruling.
Conrad Petermann, a lawyer for Pearson, said he was pleased with the decision but believes his client is innocent and deserves a new trial for the crimes. Petermann said Pearson will challenge his conviction in a separate proceeding, a habeas corpus, in which evidence can be presented that was not heard by the trial court.
Petermann described his client as "a wonderfully sweet individual, well loved by everybody who has known him" who falsely confessed to the crime.
Pearson's two co-defendants were tried separately and were not affected by Monday's decision. Petermann said Pearson was in his early 20s when he was convicted in 1999.