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

The California Supreme Court Thursday reversed a gang member’s conviction and death sentence for the murders of three brothers in Inglewood, two of whom may have been lured into a trap while trying to find their sibling’s killer.

The state’s highest court unanimously ruled that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders abused his discretion by removing a juror during deliberations in the guilt phase of Craigen Lewis Armstrong’s trial.

Armstrong was convicted in 2004 of first-degree murder for the Sept. 27, 2001, killing of 21-year-old Christopher Florence and the shooting deaths of two of his brothers, Michael and Torry, two days later.

Michael and Torry Florence, ages 27 and 29, respectively, were killed while driving with another of their brothers, Brian, and a fourth man after Michael Florence received a phone call from a woman who said she had information about his brother’s death and would meet with him.

Armstrong — who maintained that he had nothing to do with Christopher Florence’s killing and that he shot the other two brothers in self-defense — was sentenced to death in 2005.

In a 35-page ruling on behalf of the panel, Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye wrote that the judge had received notes indicating a female juror was not objectively considering the evidence, was refusing to listen to other jurors’ views and harbored possible biases regarding gang members and police, and excused her for failing to deliberate.

“Mindful of the heightened scrutiny under which the trial court’s excusal of a deliberating juror is assessed on appeal, we cannot say with confidence that the record shows as a ‘demonstrable reality’ that there was good cause to discharge Juror No. 5. We therefore agree with defendant that the court abused its discretion in dismissing Juror No. 5 and that the error compels reversal of the judgment in its entirety.”

The justices ruled that the case could be retried.

Noting that they were providing guidance in the event prosecutors seek a retrial, the justices rejected Armstrong’s claim that the trial court had erred in denying his request to sever his trial on three sets of charges — the killing of Christopher Florence, the killings of Michael and Torry Florence and attempted murders of two other men with them, including another of the Florence brothers, and an attack on his ex-girlfriend by others while he was behind bars.

“The two shootings were connected in their commission because the same gun was used in both incidents, and because the evidence suggested that Christopher’s brothers were looking for Christopher’s killer when they were shot,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote on behalf of the panel.

The justices noted that the assault on Armstrong’s ex-girlfriend was “likewise connected to the two shootings” because Armstrong’s admissions to her about both shootings “provided defendant with a motive to intimidate her.”

—City News Service

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