Jurors order killer sentenced to death in 1977 murders

Lloyd Earl Jackson once appeared to be first in line for the gas chamber after California reinstituted capital punishment in 1977.

The 19-year-old had beaten two elderly Long Beach women to death and raped one with a wine bottle. The brutality of his crime and his lack of remorse made Jackson the “model candidate for death in the gas house,” one columnist wrote after his death sentence was upheld by the state’s highest court.

But Jackson’s short walk from San Quentin’s death row to the execution room has taken a long detour through numerous courts and appeals over the last three decades. On Thursday, a Long Beach jury once again found that Jackson, now 52, should be put to death.

His defense attorney argued that his client should be spared the death penalty because the years he languished on death row was punishment enough. The prosecutor said Jackson deserved to be executed and has had more than his share of second chances.

“He blames his poor childhood, he blames his parents, he blames his race, he blames the civil rights movement, he blames justice for keeping him in prison all these years during his appeals,” L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Thorp told jurors. “Nobody else did this to him. He committed these crimes.”

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and a death penalty advocate, said Jackson’s case showed California’s ineffectiveness in administering capital cases.

“It takes forever to get justice,” he said. “Issues that have nothing to do with guilt are being reviewed too many times, and for too long.”

Jackson’s retrial took jurors back to the events of late summer 1977, when two widows, Vernita Curtis and Gladys Ott, were beaten and strangled to death during burglaries a week apart in a Long Beach apartment building. Curtis, 81, was found unconscious on her bedroom floor with her face swollen and bruised, and died in the hospital four days later. Her next door neighbor, 90-year-old Ott, was found dead with broken ribs, a fractured sternum, detached lung and cuts to her vagina.

Jackson’s fingerprints were found on a wine bottle in Ott’s apartment, which prosecutors said was used to rape Ott. He turned himself in to authorities and gave a statement admitting his involvement in the burglaries and to hitting the two women but said that other young men were also involved.

At the time, the death penalty had recently been reinstated in California after it had twice been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

In 1980, Jackson became the first man whose death sentence was upheld by the high court, and many people believed he would be the first to be executed under the revised law.In the following years, however, further challenges in Jackson’s case led to a sweeping inquiry into whether the state’s death penalty was being unfairly imposed based on the race and sex of the killer and the victim. Jackson is black; his two victims were white. That inquiry came to an abrupt end after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such statistics alone could not prove whether a specific individual was subject to bias in his sentence.

Jackson continued to appeal his conviction.

In 2008, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Jackson’s conviction but threw out his death sentence, finding that prosecutors had failed to disclose promises made to two jailhouse informants in return for their testimony. The informants’ testimony was used to bolster the “special circumstances” allegations that, under state law, made Jackson eligible for death.

In March, after deliberating for about six hours, jurors found those allegations -- multiple murder and murder committed during a burglary -- to be true. Then, they were asked to decide whether Jackson should again be sentenced to death.

Jurors were shown photos of the women’s injuries. Statements from both victims’ daughters, who have since passed away, were read. Curtis’ granddaughter-in-law and great-granddaughter testified. Jackson himself took the stand, his hair and mustache now a salt-and-pepper gray, and the corners of his once-hulking frame softened by the years.

He told jurors of his difficult youth, during which he was abandoned by his father and suffered abuse at the hands of his drunkard stepfather.

Jackson’s court-appointed attorney, Randy Short, told jurors that after the decades spent with death looming over him it would be “inhumane” to have Jackson executed now.

“Lloyd Jackson has spent almost two-thirds of his life either in custody or on death row . . . 11,877 days as of now,” Short said, outlining for jurors in the corner of the courtroom the size of a 5-by-8 cell in San Quentin. “It’s not his fault that the system takes 32 1/2 years to get to this point.”

On Thursday morning, after deliberating for about three days, jurors told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Tomson T. Ong they were deadlocked 11 to 1. Ong ordered them to continue deliberating.

Late in the afternoon, they delivered a verdict of death, once more sending Jackson’s case down a path of years of potential appeals.