A closely divided state Supreme Court reversed on Thursday the death sentence of the convicted killer of a widowed 76-year-old Pasadena Sunday school teacher in an attempted rape and robbery in 1981 that netted the assailant $5.
By a 4-3 vote, the justices held that Bronte Lamont Wright, 34, was entitled to a new penalty trial because jurors had improperly heard testimony that Wright had threatened to kill several people and had said he liked to do "freaky things" to women.
In another capital case, the court unanimously upheld the death sentence of Calvin Coleman Jr., 32, for the shotgun slaying of a Sonoma County woman during a robbery and burglary in 1980.
In the Wright case, the justices were sharply split over whether the impermissible testimony was significant enough to warrant overturning the death sentence.
The majority, in an opinion by Justice John A. Arguelles, concluded that there was a "reasonable possibility" that the evidence caused jurors to vote for a sentence of death, rather than for life in prison.
"To a penalty phase jury . . . the potential danger (Wright) poses to others in the prison setting--guards, counselors, other inmates--must have been an important consideration," Arguelles wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Stanley Mosk and Allen E. Broussard and Appellate Justice Keith F. Sparks, who was assigned temporarily to the case.
Dissenters, in an opinion by Justice David N. Eagleson, said the erroneously admitted testimony of threats was of little importance in view of properly received evidence of the brutal slaying and Wright's history of six armed robberies and two violent assaults.
"I credit jurors with being able to distinguish between threats and proven acts and to weigh their respective evidentiary value accordingly," Eagleson said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas and Justice Edward A. Panelli.
Wright was found guilty of the May, 1981, murder of Patricia Hunter, whose body was found in her blood-spattered living room by friends who were concerned about her absence from a meeting of Sunday school teachers at Pasadena's Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church. An examination determined that she had died of multiple blows to the head.
Evidence found at the scene led police to Wright, who admitted fatally beating the woman. After the beating, he took $5 and some change from her purse, he said.
Wright was sentenced to death, and the verdict was appealed automatically to the state Supreme Court.
The decisive issue in the appeal was the improper admission of testimony from nine witnesses--most of them prison employees--who said that when Wright was previously in custody, they had heard him make numerous violent threats, including a threat to kill several people when released from prison.
The court, as in past rulings, agreed that such threats should not have been disclosed to the jury. By statute, only specific factors--including the circumstances of the crime and a defendant's previous felony convictions--may be considered by jurors deciding whether to impose the death penalty.
Convicted of Murder
Coleman was convicted of the murder of Patricia Neidig and the stabbings of two other women in a robbery at the slain victim's rural home in Windsor. Coleman, who had just been released from prison after serving time for armed robbery, was also found guilty in the rape of one of the survivors in the attack.
The court has upheld 50 death sentences while overturning 21 since the departure of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other court members, who were defeated in the 1986 fall election.