An appellate panel Monday overturned a murder verdict in the 1981 robbing, beating and strangulation death of a Newport Beach retiree in his condominium.

James Andrew Melton, 67, was sentenced in April of last year to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the October 1981 murder of 77-year-old Anthony DeSousa.

Melton was originally convicted and sentenced to death in 1982, but in 2007 a federal judge tossed the verdict, ruling the defendant was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial in 1982 due to “improperly administered psychiatric medications.”

A retrial in May 2014 ended with jurors deadlocked 10-2 for guilt. Before another retrial in 2016, Orange County Superior Judge Gregg Prickett allowed prosecutors to include testimony from a former cellmate and “lover,” Johnny Boyd, during a preliminary hearing in 1982.

In its ruling Monday, a three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal found that Prickett erred in including the testimony of Boyd, who died in 1992, saying it was too prejudicial.

At issue is whether Melton was mentally incompetent during his preliminary hearing. The justices found there was not enough evidence to determine that, but ruled Prickett erred in finding the defendant was mentally competent during the proceeding, which cleared the way for the inclusion of Boyd’s testimony.

The defendant’s attorneys argued “it was not `feasible’ for the trial court to conduct a retrospective competency hearing 35 years after the preliminary hearing. We agree,” the justices’ ruling says.

The justices added that given the amount of time since the hearing, “no court could have reliably concluded that Melton was mentally competent at the March 1982 preliminary hearing.”

Prosecutors granted immunity to Boyd at the defendant’s preliminary hearing and trial, and it was his account of Melton’s apparent admittance to the killing that jurors heard in the most recent trial.

Days after the killing, Melton visited Boyd in jail wearing DeSousa’s rings, according to Boyd, who said Melton told him he got the jewelry from DeSousa’s home.

“Melton said that he met DeSousa at the Disneyland Hotel, then they went to DeSousa’s house,” according to the justices’ ruling. “Boyd asked Melton what happened, but Melton was reluctant to talk about it. When Boyd again asked what happened to DeSousa, Melton `said that (DeSousa) would never tell anybody.” Melton made a gesture with his hands indicating that DeSousa had been choked or (strangled).”

Senior Deputy District Attorney Steve McGreevy told jurors that after DeSousa’s longtime wife died in 1974, he “began living an openly gay lifestyle” and met Boyd when he responded to the victim’s classified ad in a gay magazine.

Boyd and Melton had cooked up a scheme to contact older gay men and steal from them, according to the prosecutor.

Boyd met with DeSousa when he got out of prison before Melton and recommended his “cousin” to the victim, McGreevy said. The two planned to rob DeSousa, but Boyd got arrested on a warrant before they could reconnect, so Melton went alone to meet with DeSousa, the prosecutor said.

Melton, who had moved in with girlfriend Linda Diane Harris in Los Angeles after his release from prison in August 1981, told Harris, who has also since died, that he was going to a meeting at a Disneyland hotel and then head over to Costa Mesa before returning home, McGreevy said.

DeSousa was beaten so severely that his attacker knocked out a tooth, McGreevy said. It wasn’t until a few days later that a Newport Beach police officer tasked with conducting a welfare check of DeSousa managed to get a look into the victim’s home and saw that he was dead, McGreevy said.

When Melton arrived back home, he was driving DeSousa’s car. And although he was broke before, he now had enough cash to treat Harris and other friends to dinner and a movie, McGreevy said.

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