On Monday, the California Supreme Court reversed the death penalty for a man who killed two women, one of them the mother of Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. The Court upheld John Alexander Riccardi's conviction for double murder, but dismissed the death death sentence because of a legal error during jury selection.
According to the court, in 1983, Riccardi stalked and killed former girlfriend Connie Navarro, after failing to come to terms with the end of their relationship. Riccardi, also allegedly a regular house burglar, repeatedly broke into Navarro's home, at one point even allegedly handcuffing her son, Dave, while he rifled through her personal items. After threatening her a number of times, Riccardi shot and killed Navarro and her friend, Susan Jory, at Navarro's home. He fled town the day after, eventually moving to Texas, applying for a passport under another name, and having plastic surgery to remove a mole and shorten his nose.
Police found him in 1991 after an episode of "America's Most Wanted" featured the crime. Riccardi pled not guilty, but was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death. Because of that sentence, his case was automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court.
The justices found Riccardi did commit the murders, but still reversed the death sentence. At issue was when jurors can be dismissed from a death penalty case because of their views on capital punishment. The Supreme Court has said that if a juror says they would never impose the death penalty, they can be dismissed from a jury in a case where the death penalty is on the table.
In this case, a juror was dismissed after giving conflicting answers on her questionnaire as to whether she supported and could impose a death sentence, but was dismissed from the jury without futher questioning on the basis that she was categorically against the death penalty. That, apparently, was wrong.
"Prospective jurors who express personal opposition to the death penalty are not automatically subject to excusal for cause as long as they state clearly that they are willing to temporarily set aside their own beliefs in deference to the rule of law," wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in the court's opinion. And whether or not that impacted the outcome of the case, such a dismissal calls for the death penalty to automatically be thrown out, she wrote.
It's now up to the California Attorney General to decide whether to continue to pursue the death penalty for Riccardi. The decision in this case could give hope to others on death row. Scott Peterson, who recently appealed his own case and death sentence, also argues that prospective jurors who waffled on the death penalty were erroneously dismissed from the trial.