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Prosecutors May Seek Death Penalty in Slaying of Pacoima Pastor : Crime: The two defendants, college students Philip J. Dimenno and Dana L. Singer, plead not guilty to charges of first-degree murder in the black minister’s shooting death.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office said Tuesday that prosecutors may seek the death penalty for two college students from Northridge accused of killing a Pacoima pastor after a quarrel over a minor traffic accident.

Philip J. Dimenno, 19, and Dana L. Singer, 18, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of first-degree murder, to which were added additional allegations that the crime was committed during a burglary, which makes them eligible for the death penalty.

“We believe the evidence supports the filing of the additional counts,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth Barshop said.

A decision on whether to request the death penalty will be made later, Barshop said.

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Dimenno and Singer are accused of the July 28 shooting death of 54-year-old Carl White, pastor of the Apostolic Temple Church in Pacoima. Investigators have said that White was gunned down by Dimenno and Singer because they feared he would report a minor traffic accident to police.

The teen-agers had previously been charged only with first-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. But they were each charged Tuesday with two counts of burglary and one count of fraudulent use of a credit card, allegedly stolen from White after he was slain. Dimenno faces an additional charge of burglary.

Dimenno and Singer were arrested three days after the killing when they allegedly tried to use one of White’s credit cards at a Reseda tire store.

The decision to increase the charges was praised by a predominantly black ministers group and other community activists from the northeast San Fernando Valley, who have been pressing the district attorney’s office to act firmly. But it prompted a defense attorney to accuse the prosecutors of bowing to public pressure in a case that has drawn accusations of racial prejudice.

The defendants are white and the victim was black.

The ministers and activists reacted with outrage when Dimenno, who was accepted at UC Santa Barbara on a scholarship, and Singer, a pre-business major at Cal State Northridge, were granted an unusually low bail of $20,000 last month. The group accused the district attorney’s office of “lethal racism” in recommending the low bail.

The bail was revoked the day after it was granted and the district attorney’s office changed its policies to require high-level approval of all bail recommendations of less than $250,000 in murder cases.

Barshop, asked if the additional charges were pursued because of pressure on the district attorney’s office, replied: “Absolutely not.” He said prosecutors had been considering filing the extra charges since Dimenno and Singer were arrested.

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Dimenno’s attorney, Harold Greenberg, said publicity surrounding the case influenced the prosecutors’ decision to file additional charges. He called the possibility of prosecutors pursuing the death penalty “ludicrous.”

“I think it’s way out of line,” Greenberg said. “There’s been a lot of pressure and I don’t think anyone has looked at it objectively.”

Pastor James V. Lyles, president of the Ministers Fellowship of the Greater San Fernando Valley-- the group that denounced the initial handling of the case--said he felt sorry for Dimenno and Singer, but “justice has to take its course.”

“My confidence in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has certainly increased,” he said.

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