The California Supreme Court Monday set aside a death penalty judgment, triggering a penalty phase retrial for a Pomona man who was 19 when he killed two of his Target store co-workers because he didn’t get the promotion he wanted.
Sergio Dujuan Nelson was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1993 shooting deaths of Robin Shirley, 32, and Lee Thompson, 22.
Nelson gunned down Shirley because she got the promotion he felt he deserved and killed Thompson because she had defended Shirley when he harassed her about the promotion, according to facts outlined in the court’s opinion.
The two women were sitting in a car in the parking lot, waiting for the Target store in La Verne to open, when Nelson opened fire.
The defense argued that Nelson suffered from severe depression and that he had snapped and killed the women impulsively, rather than having premeditated the act.
The court rejected the defense argument that the evidence of deliberation was weak.
“The evidence of Nelson’s careful planning included painting his bicycle black, arming himself, going to a location when he expected to find his victims, concealing his bicycle, approaching his victims on foot and in dark clothes to gain the element of surprise, and when his initial shots evidently failed to immediately kill them, retracing his steps and firing additional shots into the vehicle,” Justice Goodwin H. Liu wrote.
However, the majority in the 5-2 opinion did agree with the defense that there was insufficient evidence to support a special circumstance allegation of lying-in-wait and set it aside, finding “no evidence … that Nelson arrived before the victims or waited in ambush for their arrival.”
A dissent penned by Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who was joined by Justice Ming W. Chin as to that issue alone, stated that “the period of watching and waiting required for the lying-in-wait special circumstance need be no longer than the time required to form the mental state of premeditation or deliberation.”
However, Nelson remains eligible for the death penalty under a special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, which remains unchallenged.
There were two penalty phases to the trial, with the first jury deadlocking 11-1. The record does not reveal whether the hung jury favored death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After a second jury deliberated for six days, that panel also declared itself deadlocked.
In response, the prosecution drafted a questionnaire that included eight different queries about the jury’s process which the court agreed to share with jurors over objections from the defense.
The court questioned the jury foreman in chambers and read him portions of the other jurors’ responses, including an allegation that one panelist carried a weapon and was taking psychotropic medications. After questioning others, the juror who was the subject of those allegations was dismissed on the basis that she had made misrepresentations to the court when she was originally seated.
Again over objections by the defense that the court was “invading the province of the jury,” an alternate was seated. The following day the reconstituted panel recommended the death penalty.
The state’s high court unanimously agreed that the death penalty should be reversed based on the lower court’s interference in the penalty phase, finding that interventions to resolve a deadlock “must be limited and undertaken with the utmost respect for the sanctity of the deliberative process.”
In this case, the lower court took actions that put pressure on holdout jurors and amounted to coercion, according to the high court’s opinion.
The matter will be remanded to the lower court for retrial of the penalty phase.
–City News Service
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