State Justices Overturn Death Row Conviction
In a rare move, the California Supreme Court on Monday unanimously overturned a Southern California man’s murder conviction and death sentence after finding “outrageous and pervasive misconduct” by a longtime Los Angeles County prosecutor.
The state high court, citing “gross misconduct” in the defendant’s 1988 trial, also reported Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosalie Morton, 74 and still actively prosecuting cases, to the State Bar of California for possible discipline.
The ruling overturns the conviction and death sentence of Shawn Hill, 38, a onetime resident of Pacoima who has been on death row for nearly a decade. He was convicted for the murder and robbery of a man who allegedly refused to buy fake cocaine from him.
Prosecutors have the right to retry Hill but may face difficulty because of the age of the case. If they do not retry him, Hill will go free. A spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said prosecutors have not decided whether to retry Hill. He will remain in custody for at least several weeks while prosecutors decide what to do.
The district attorney’s office also declined to comment on the court’s finding of prosecutorial misconduct. A spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, whose office fought to keep Hill’s death sentence in place, referred questions about Morton to the district attorney.
“From our perspective, [Hill] was found guilty,” said Lungren spokesman Matt Ross. The prosecutor “just happened to get a little carried away.”
The justices saw the matter somewhat differently.
In a blistering ruling, the court cited Morton’s “pervasive campaign to mislead the jury” and her “unceasing denigration” of Hill’s lawyer and other errors for making Hill’s trial “fundamentally unfair.”
“Morton’s actions, at times childish and unprofessional and at other times outrageous and unethical, betrayed her trust as a public prosecutor,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the court. “Her methods were deceptive and reprehensible.”
Morton, reached in her San Fernando office, said she had been unaware of the decision, but that “it doesn’t make a bit of difference.”
The court’s action in Hill’s appeal was highly unusual. The state high court last year upheld 86% of the death cases it reviewed. And even when death sentences are overturned, the court “very, very rarely” overturns one on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen.
“I can’t remember a prosecutor misconduct reversal in a death case in California in the last 12 years,” said Uelmen, a court analyst.
Lesser Misconduct Sometimes Found
Although the state Supreme Court has previously found that prosecutors committed misconduct in capital cases, the justices usually decide that the misconduct was not sufficient to undermine the conviction and sentence, Uelmen said.
Noting that four of the seven justices face a retention election in November, Uelmen said: “I think it takes a lot of courage on the part of the court to issue an opinion like this.”
Morton is considered a legend in Los Angeles legal circles in part for aggressive trial tactics that have drawn criticism from appellate courts. She has worked for the district attorney’s office since 1970.
In this case, the justices said she repeatedly misstated and mischaracterized evidence, told the jury of information that was not in evidence, misstated the law, propounded “outright falsehoods” and made “sarcastic and critical comments demeaning” Hill’s lawyer during the trial.
Hill was found guilty of first-degree murder for the Aug. 25, 1986, fatal stabbing of Stuart Margetts in a Pacoima apartment complex. Prosecutors charged that Hill tried to sell Margetts fake cocaine, demanded money from him and then killed him.
Hill also was found guilty of the Aug. 27, 1986, attempted murder and robbery of Ronald Johnson, then 19, who allegedly failed to buy fake cocaine from him. Three eyewitnesses testified in connection to Margetts’ slaying. Two of them said Hill did not commit the murder.
In the attempted murder case, Johnson, who survived the stabbing, and his companion both identified Hill as the man who knifed him.
Hill did not testify during his trial but has consistently maintained his innocence, said his attorney, Paul J. Spiegelman, who has represented him during his appeals.
Hill’s lawyer during his trial argued that the witnesses who had identified him were mistaken.
Spiegelman, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, said he told Hill of the court’s action Monday afternoon.
“He was very surprised and delighted and looked forward to the opportunity to prove his innocence,” Spiegelman said.
He quoted Hill as saying: “Now I am going to get the fair trial I was entitled to so many years ago.”
The Supreme Court also faulted retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John H. Major for problems during the trial. Major improperly deferred to the sheriff’s department on a decision to shackle Hill in the courtroom after Hill began walking away from the defense table during a pretrial hearing, the justices said.
After Morton misstated blood evidence and Hill’s lawyer objected, the trial judge “not only erroneously overruled the objection, but chastised defense counsel in front of the jury, commenting that [the defense lawyer] was the one who was confused and not Morton,” the court said.
But the court reserved the bulk of its criticism for Morton, noting that she was cited for prosecutorial misconduct in three previous cases.
When Hill’s lawyer was questioning a victim and a witness, Morton laughed “audibly,” the court said, and at one point got out of her chair and stood in his line of sight, “staring at him and making faces at him.”
Morton’s conduct alone “may very well” have been enough to warrant a new trial for Hill even without the other trial errors, the justices said.
The court also criticized Morton for intimidating a defense witness by threatening to charge him with perjury before he testified and complained that Morton “grossly mischaracterized” Hill’s criminal record.
Criticisms of Prosecutor
In closing arguments, Morton told the jury: “And everything [Hill] ever did one way or another, he got away with it. He has killed. He has stabbed. He has robbed. He has gone to prison for it. He has not been rehabilitated under any guise or thought.”
Contrary to her assertions, Hill’s prior convictions did not involve homicide, stabbings or robbery, the court noted.
“Our public prosecutors are charged with an important and solemn duty to ensure that justice and fairness remain the touchstone of our criminal justice system,” the court said.
“The rule prohibiting reversals for prosecutorial misconduct absent a miscarriage of justice in no way authorizes or justifies the type of misconduct that occurred in this case.”
“It takes no citation to authority for us to conclude such juvenile courtroom behavior by a public prosecutor demeans the office, distracts the jury, prejudices the defense and demands censure.”
Morton has many critics among defense lawyers in Los Angeles.
Attorney Alvin Nierenberg, who said he was kicked by Morton during a murder trial in the 1970s, said that during that trial, “we just got into it.”
Another longtime defense lawyer, who refused to be identified, called Morton “a loose cannon.”
“She has a nasty temper. But anything she does, she does because she thinks she’s right,” the lawyer added. “She thinks she has justification for it.”
“She is not a prosecutor who does things thinking she won’t be found out. She does them because she thinks it’s right.”
Charlie Gessler, who retired after heading the Los Angeles public defender’s death penalty case section, said he was pleased that Hill’s conviction had been overturned.
“The Supreme Court is sending a message to both the Los Angeles district attorney’s office and all other prosecutorial authorities that the search for justice in these matters far outweighs a prosecutor’s desire to achieve victory,” Gessler said.
Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.