A federal appeals court Thursday reversed a convicted murderer’s 1987 death sentence, saying the jury may have been confused about whether the man would have been eligible for parole if sentenced any other way.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new sentencing proceeding for Bruce Wayne Morris, 44, who was convicted of killing a man who had picked him up while he was hitchhiking from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe in 1985. The court upheld Morris’ conviction.
During the penalty phase of Morris’ 1987 trial, jurors were given written instructions that at one point stated that Morris, if not sentenced to death, would face prison for life with the possibility of parole. The instruction should have said the life prison term would be without the possibility of parole.
The error, said Judge Susan P. Graber in the three-member appeals panel’s unanimous ruling, “is too obvious, the likelihood of prejudice too great, and the stakes are too high to conclude the error was harmless.”
Prosecutors said Morris killed Rickey Van Zandt by hitting him with a rock and a stick. Morris, his girlfriend and her sister were picked up by Van Zandt when hitchhiking, prosecutors said. Morris killed Van Zandt as part of a plot to steal his van, they said.
Ward A. Campbell, the deputy attorney general who represented the state in the appeal, criticized the ruling for not recognizing that Morris recently asked to be executed. “It does not deal with Mr. Morris’ request to end litigation,” Campbell said.
Marianne Bachers, Morris’ lawyer, said, however, that Morris had volunteered to be executed while depressed, and that he has since changed his mind.
Bachers said Morris became depressed after prison officials denied him visits and barred him from continuing his hobby of making replicas of San Quentin death row cells using cardboard, toothpicks and soap.