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Fetus Murder Verdict Against Deputy Upheld

Times Staff Writer

The California Court of Appeal on Thursday reinstated a second-degree murder verdict against former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Armstrong that stemmed from the 1982 shooting death of an unborn child during an illegal early-morning raid on a pregnant woman’s home.

However, the court ruled that Armstrong, who was released from County Jail after serving eight months of a one-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, will not have to return to jail.

Both the district attorney’s office, which had appealed the trial judge’s reduction of a jury’s verdict, and Armstrong’s attorney expressed satisfaction with the ruling.

“We’re very pleased,” said defense counsel Robert Sheahen. “The essence of the court’s ruling is that Mr. Armstrong has served a fair sentence for his offense.”

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The shooting occurred after Armstrong made a call to his station April 16, 1982, falsely reporting a disturbance at a Duarte home--which he believed to be a drug-trafficking site--in order to justify a raid there.

When he and other deputies kicked the door down at 2 a.m., Delois Young, who was pregnant, confronted them with an unloaded rifle and was shot by Armstrong. Her eighth-month fetus died.

A jury convicted Armstrong of murdering the fetus, a charge that could have carried a term of more than 15 years to life in state prison. The jury also convicted him of attempted murder for the wounding of the mother.

However, Superior Court Judge William B. Keene reduced the murder conviction and dismissed the conviction concerning the mother, saying they were unsupported by evidence that Armstrong had intended to kill.

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Keene placed Armstrong on probation for five years, requiring him to spend one of those years in County Jail.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the district attorney’s contention that Keene’s modification resulted in “a crucial error of law,” because Armstrong, as an aggressor, had no right to claim self-defense.

“He attempted to illegally enter a dwelling at 2 a.m. by force,” the court stated. “It goes without saying that his status as a deputy sheriff did not justify such conduct. If anything, it rendered it more reprehensible.”

Additionally, the appellate court agreed that Armstrong could not be found guilty of manslaughter because state law does not provide for the crime of manslaughter in the death of a fetus.

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However, the court left the sentence intact because Keene had stated he would have given Armstrong the same sentence even if he had allowed the jury’s convictions for murder and attempted murder to stand.

“Therefore, our reinstatement of those two convictions does not require a new hearing, since we already know exactly what sentence the judge, who actually heard this trial but who has since retired from the bench, intended,” the ruling stated.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said he was satisfied with the ruling, since it determined that Armstrong “was guilty of second-degree murder, period.”

Although prosecutors also had hoped to increase the sentence, Garcetti said, there will be no further appeal “because there’s no basis (for it).”

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