The California Supreme Court decided unanimously Thursday to overturn a man’s conviction in the killing of an LAPD officer 37 years ago during a traffic stop.
The state high court, citing extensive evidence that the defense lawyer for Kenneth Earl Gay was incompetent, reversed the conviction that sent Gay to death row in Officer Paul Verna’s killing on the evening of June 2, 1983, in Lake View Terrace.
Gay’s case has bounced between the lower courts and the California Supreme Court for years. The court overturned his death sentence years ago on the grounds he had an inadequate lawyer, and a new trial was held on whether he should be condemned to death. Another jury also recommended death, but the second death sentence also was overturned.
Gay then argued that his lawyer, Daye Shinn, also botched the guilty phase of his trial. Shinn, who was later disbarred and has since died, lied to get Gay’s case, evidence showed, counseled the defendant to admit to incriminating evidence and failed to introduce evidence that might have persuaded a jury to acquit him or spare his life.
Both Gay and a co-defendant, Raynard Cummings, were passengers in the stolen car stopped by motorcycle officer Verna. Witnesses disagreed about which man shot Verna. Both were convicted and sentenced to death for shooting Verna.
“We cannot say Gay’s murder conviction was the product of a trustworthy adversarial process,” Justice Leondra R. Kruger wrote for the court. “Defense counsel obtained appointment to represent Gay through fraud, counseled him to make damaging confessions to the prosecution ... and failed to conduct a timely investigation into available testimony from eyewitnesses who would have exculpated Gay and peace officers who would have inculpated Gay’s co-defendant.”
Verna, who was 35 when he was fatally shot, won a medal of valor for trying to rescue children from a burning building. Two sons, Bryce and Ryan, later became police officers and joined the LAPD.
Prosecutors argued that Cummings fired the first shot at Verna before passing the gun to Gay, who fired five bullets. During his retrial, witnesses testified that Gay had previously robbed and beaten them, and a former girlfriend told the court he firebombed her family’s home.
Los Angeles prosecutors will now decide whether to retry Gay, 60.
While on death row, Gay wrote a screenplay, “A Children’s Story,” which won an American Film Institute contest in 1994. Actor Ed Asner, a judge for the contest, testified on behalf of Gay during his retrial.
Shinn, the disbarred lawyer, also was the attorney for Manson “family” member Susan Atkins, who was convicted of participating in eight murders and died in prison in 2009. Shinn eventually lost his license to practice law for misappropriating client funds in an unrelated case.
Deputy Atty. Gen. David F. Glassman, who represented the prosecution in the case, declined to comment.