Jurors in the Sagon Penn murder trial reached a verdict Friday on one of six charges in the case but were sent home for the weekend without having announced their decision because of a bomb threat at the downtown courthouse.
In its second day of deliberations, the jury sent a note to Superior Court Judge Ben W. Hamrick saying it had reached a verdict on an attempted murder charge that Penn tried to kill San Diego Police Agent Donovan Jacobs by running over him with Jacobs' patrol car.
Hamrick contacted Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Carpenter and defense attorney Milton Silverman by telephone Friday afternoon and instructed them to appear in his courtroom to discuss whether the jury should wait until reaching a decision on all six charges before announcing the verdicts.
But before Silverman arrived at the courtroom, Hamrick dismissed the jurors for the day after a caller to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department said that a bomb was set to go off at 3:30 p.m. on the second or third floor of the courthouse. The caller made no reference to the Penn case.
The second and third floors of the courthouse and offices of the Sheriff's Department in an adjoining building were evacuated, but no bomb was found. Hamrick's courtroom is on the fourth floor.
Penn is charged with murder in the March 31, 1985, shooting death of Police Agent Thomas Riggs and attempted murder for shooting Jacobs and Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a civilian who accompanied Riggs in his patrol car as an observer. Penn faces three additional charges--attempted murder for driving over the wounded Jacobs while fleeing the scene, grand theft for taking Riggs' loaded police revolver, and auto theft.
Penn grabbed Jacobs' gun as the officer sat on top of him and shot Jacobs once in the neck. He then turned and shot Riggs three times before shooting Pina-Ruiz twice through the driver's side window of the police car. The defense claims that Penn, 24, who is black, reacted in self-defense after the two officers repeatedly beat him with night sticks and Jacobs shouted racial slurs.
Carpenter speculated that jurors in the 12-week-old case were able to reach an early verdict because they decided to take a vote on the simplest charge for them to decide in the complex case--attempted murder by using a vehicle. In connection with that charge the jurors have four choices: guilty of attempted murder, attempted voluntary manslaughter, assault with a deadly weapon or innocent.
The jurors filed into the jury box about 3:35 p.m. after Hamrick sent Carpenter out of the courtroom. The judge said he had called the attorneys in response to their note, but that the next step was "complicated" by the bomb threat.
"I'm 99% sure it's a crank call," Hamrick said. He added that he was sending the jurors home "to be on the safe side." He directed the jurors to return at 9 a.m. Monday for answers to any of their questions and a decision on how to proceed with deliberations.
While multiple verdicts in most trials are usually announced all at once, the attorneys in the Penn case may consider accepting them one at a time because one of the jurors, Vernell Hardy, is expecting a baby in two weeks.
Hardy, one of two black jurors, has indicated that if her delivery goes without complications, she would like to return to the jury. Hamrick said he would recess deliberations for a week to accommodate Hardy.
Under court rules, deliberations must start over again if any verdicts are not signed and announced in court before an alternate juror is called in. But deliberations can continue uninterrupted with the new juror as long as any prior verdicts are announced.
Hamrick indicated Friday that he would prefer to wait until all verdicts are decided before announcing them.
"I don't want you to rush this," Hamrick said. "If you've got partial verdicts, just hang onto them."
Times staff writer Jim Schachter contributed to this report.