California Supreme Court building. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
California Supreme Court building. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The California Supreme Court Monday upheld a man’s conviction, but overturned his death sentence, for a monthlong crime spree that included robberies in which two men were shot and killed eight days apart in Sun Valley and Hollywood.

The state’s highest court upheld Richard Leon’s conviction on two counts of murder, 16 counts of robbery, three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and two counts related to a police chase that led to his arrest, finding that “the evidence of defendant’s guilt was overwhelming.”

But the panel reversed the convicted double-murderer’s death sentence, finding that a “cursory” examination of three prospective jurors who expressed general opposition to the death penalty was “simply not sufficient to permit an informed decision about their ability to serve.”

The panel noted that binding U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires automatic reversal of a death sentence based on error in excusing a prospective juror for cause based on that person’s views about the death penalty.

“Thus, regardless of whether defendant suffered any actual prejudice from the dismissal of these panelists, his penalty judgment must be reversed,” Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote on behalf of the panel.

The justices ordered the case to be sent back for determination on whether the penalty phase of Leon’s trial will be retried.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey handled the case as a trial attorney.

When asked if she had any misgivings about how jury selection was done, she said: “As I recall, it was a very diverse panel of people who looked at the case. I have not reviewed the opinion, obviously, but in that case I’m very settled about how I conducted myself as a prosecutor.”

Leon was convicted of the Feb. 2, 1993, killing of 41-year-old Norair Akhverdian, who was shot in the back — a crime captured on surveillance video – – after a robbery at a Shell gasoline station in Sun Valley, and the Feb. 10, 1993, shooting death of Varouj Armenian, 39, during a robbery at Jack’s Liquor Store in Hollywood, which he owned.

Both victims were married and had two young children.

Jurors also found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during the commission of a robbery.

Leon was additionally found guilty of a series of other heists in Hollywood, Beverly Hills, North Hollywood and Arleta — with four of the robberies occurring on Feb. 17, 1993. He was arrested the next day by Los Angeles police after a high-speed chase.

—Staff and wire reports

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