A Superior Court jury Friday convicted a 21-year-old Tustin man of murdering three young auto shop employees whom he had robbed, bound with tape and shot as they helplessly sat on the floor.
The jury will reconvene Monday to determine whether Gregory Allan Sturm, who wept as the verdicts were read, will go to the gas chamber or spend the rest of his life in prison.
But after sending the jurors home, Judge Donald McCartin made several unusual and unexpected comments to people in the courtroom, including relatives of the victims, that he did not think the jury will give Sturm the death penalty.
"My feeling is that the jury may not come back with the death penalty," McCartin said. "The reason I'm saying this publicly is because I know that there are a lot of people on both sides, and I'm trying to save people the heartache, trauma and so forth in the penalty phase of this trial."
McCartin made his prediction after the jurors split, 8-4, on the question of whether the murders had been premeditated. Because four jurors did not believe they were, McCartin said, it has been his experience that they will probably not vote for the death penalty.
A sentence of life without parole "is where this jury is leading," said McCartin, who also suggested that the prosecutor ask his "superiors" whether they want to reconsider continuing with the penalty phase.
However, McCartin said, he did not "mean to interfere with the administration of justice," and if the case continues, "so be it."
Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys declined to comment on the judge's remarks.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Lewis R. Rosenblum told about a dozen relatives of the victims outside of the courtroom that he will talk to his supervisors but believes that they will proceed with the death-penalty phase.
"I intend to go along according to plan," he said.
The jury deliberated less than 4 1/2 hours in deciding that Sturm shot and killed three men in August, 1990, in the storage room of a Tustin Super Shops outlet. Darrell Esgar, 22, of Huntington Beach; Chad Chadwick, 22, of Orange, and Russel B. Williams, 21, of Seal Beach were killed.
Sturm, who had been fired from the store several weeks before the murders, had known all of his victims.
In addition to the three murder counts, the jury convicted Sturm of one count of burglary and three counts of robbery and found that he had murdered during a robbery, which makes Sturm eligible for the death penalty.
In a videotaped interview with two Tustin police officers, Sturm confessed that he shot the men during a robbery at the store. Sturm said he committed the robbery because he wanted money for cocaine.
In a particularly gripping part of the videotape that was played for the jury, Sturm recalled how one of the victims pleaded with him not to shoot them.
"You don't have to do this. . . . You can get help. Please don't do this," Sturm quoted Chadwick as saying seconds before he was shot.
Sturm also recalled how Esgar, his last victim, "looked at me and was crying, then I started crying. He put his head down and I remember shooting . . . and seeing blood."
Initially, Sturm told police, he was just going to tape them up and leave. But as he started to walk away he said he "got scared" that they would go to the police, walked back and shot them.