Bobby Lee Pearson, a 37-year-old career criminal, got an unbelievable break Wednesday that allowed him to stride out of a Fresno jail a free man.
A jury hearing his burglary case was divided 8-4 in favor of guilt, prosecutors say. But they mistakenly checked the "not guilty" box on the court form, an error that a judge determined could not be corrected.
Less than an hour after being released, Pearson was dead. Police say he was stabbed to death by his sister's boyfriend at her house when he arrived to retrieve his belongings.
Authorities arrested the boyfriend, 35-year-old Willie Gray, of Fresno, on suspicion of murder Thursday.
"Weird stuff, huh?" said Fresno police Sgt. Jaime Rios. "That he's released and while he's out, he's murdered. This is the first time I've ever heard of it."
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said Pearson had 11 previous criminal convictions and was a member of a local street gang.
Pearson's rap sheet goes back more than a decade, with convictions on multiple weapons charges and arrests for battery, resisting a peace officer and injuring a co-inhabitant, court records show.
"The question that comes about in an incident like this is, 'If Bobby Pearson would not have been released, would this murder have occurred?'" the chief told reporters. "And the obvious answer is, 'No, he would have been in jail.'
"But we know when you are an individual like Bobby Pearson who is involved in a criminal lifestyle involving gangs, there is always a potential for him to become the victim of violent crime."
In the case that brought Pearson to the Fresno court Wednesday, he was accused of burglarizing an apartment with two other men and pointing a stolen gun at the apartment's owner.
The jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict and apparently checked the "not guilty" box in an attempt to say they were deadlocked. The judge affirmed the not-guilty decision, but soon afterward, it became clear the jury had actually deadlocked. But by then, the judge said it was too late to change the verdict.
"The law is very protective of introducing anything from outside the jury room into the whole process," said Heidi Rummel, a law professor at USC. "There are a lot of safeguards that make it difficult to go back after the fact."
The law is designed that way to address concerns about jurors being influenced after deliberating, she said, adding that the judge accepting the verdict and reading it in open court makes it "pretty final."
Prosecutors could have possibly filed a motion for a new trial, but it depends on the specific circumstances of the case, Rummel said.
Pearson's ultimate fate troubled even Fresno County Deputy Dist. Atty. William Terrence.
"It's not like he was facing the death penalty, he was going to face some prison time. It was a very unfortunate incident," Terrence said.
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