A 67-year-old man who was removed from death row and ordered to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole in a 1981 Newport Beach murder case has again had his sentence overturned.
The decision, published Monday by a panel of California Court of Appeals judges, means Orange County prosecutors will be forced to decide whether to have James Andrew Melton stand trial a fourth time in the death of 77-year-old Anthony DeSousa.
“The OCDA will be reviewing the opinion and discussing it with the [state attorney general’s] office since they handled the appeal,” Kimberly Edds, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney’s office, wrote in an email. “After such discussions ... the OCDA will make any needed decision regarding the case.”
Melton was originally convicted and sentenced to death in the case in 1982, but a federal judge tossed the verdict in 2007 after determining that jail staff overmedicated Melton to the point he was unable to participate in his defense or understand his trial.
The Orange County district attorney’s office decided not to seek the death penalty in the trials that followed.
In a 2014 retrial, a jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of convicting Melton. During his third trial in 2017, jurors deliberated for about two days before finding Melton guilty of first-degree murder for seducing and strangling DeSousa in what prosecutors contended was a plot to steal from him. Melton appealed the conviction.
A core issue the panel of judges considered in the appeal was whether Melton was mentally competent during his preliminary hearing in March 1982. The justices decided there was not enough evidence to draw a conclusion and therefore the trial judge erred in determining the defendant was mentally fit at the time.
They also concluded that the trial judge erred in including testimony Melton’s former lover, Johnny Boyd, gave during the preliminary hearing three decades ago, saying it was prejudicial.
Boyd’s testimony was a cornerstone of the prosecution’s case against Melton. Prosecutors granted immunity to Boyd in the case in the 1980s, and jurors in the most recent trial heard his account of Melton’s apparent admission to the killing. Boyd died in 1992, so in the 2017 trial, the jury heard a reading of transcripts from his prior testimony.
Jurors did not hear Boyd’s testimony during the 2014 retrial.
Prosecutors have alleged that Melton and Boyd, while serving prison sentences in San Luis Obispo in 1980, concocted a plan to make money by robbing older gay men.
Boyd, who was released from prison before Melton, met DeSousa through a personal ad. Boyd introduced DeSousa and Melton, but was arrested in an unrelated case a few days before the three men were set to rendezvous, prosecutors said.
Melton decided to meet DeSousa alone on Oct. 10, 1981, at the Disneyland Hotel. That day, prosecutors allege, Melton strangled DeSousa and made off with his car and valuables.
Three days later, DeSousa’s body was found in his bedroom. He had been badly beaten and strangled with the cord from an electric mirror.
Melton’s attorney argued there were no fingerprints or DNA evidence at DeSousa’s home linking Melton to the crime. She argued that Boyd had credibility issues and that his testimony could not be trusted.
City News Service contributed to this report.