In 1997, two Los Angeles gang leaders were convicted for murder and sentenced to death. On Monday, those convictions were overturned when the California Supreme Court ruled that a juror previously removed from the case was wrongfully excused.
Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson, a one-time Boy Scout, led the 89 Family Bloods during the 1980s and early 1990s; Michael "Fat Rat" Allen was a member of and enforcer for the gang. The 80 members of Johnson's gang are believed to have been responsible for more than 60 slayings on their turf, which stretched along the east of Inglewood.
Johnson and Allen were convicted on two counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege that Johnson ordered Allen to kill two rival gang members with an Uzi as part of an initiation ritual. The murders took place at a South Central car wash before dozens of witnesses, but it was only after federal officials got involved that anyone agreed to come forward.
During deliberations, two jurors told the judge they were concerned a third juror had made up his mind before all testimony was heard.
The juror had reportedly told his colleagues that he didn't believe it when one of the testifying witnesses claimed to have seen the killing despite being clocked in at work. The witness had claimed to have been clocked in because a Latino coworker had punched his time card for him.
"That's a lie," the replaced juror was quoted as saying. "I know Hispanics, they never cheat on timecards, so this witness was at work, end of discussion."
His fellow jurors took this and other comments to mean that the juror had reached an opinion that was not based on evidence, and he was released from jury service by the judge.
Fast forward more than a decade later and the California Supreme Court has found that having an outside opinion doesn't amount to having outside evidence and that the dismissal was therefore "improper."
"His positive opinion about the reliability of Hispanics in the workplace did not involve specialized information from an outside source," Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the court. "It was an application of his life experience."
Corrigan also said the juror appeared to participate in deliberations with an open mind and noted he denied having prejudged that case. The court concluded that the judge presiding over the 1997 murder trial erred in removing the juror.
Both Allen and Johnson's convictions, and death sentences, were overturned.
Los Angeles prosecutors will have to seek a new trial if they want to reinstate those convictions and death penalties. The office said it was reviewing the ruling.