The California Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday to overturn the death sentence of a man convicted of killing a Long Beach woman, ruling that prospective jurors were improperly excused for expressing ambivalence about the death penalty.
The state high court said the trial judge should not have excused at least four potential jurors in the trial of Jamelle Edward Armstrong, one of three men convicted of kidnapping, robbing, raping, torturing and killing Penny Sigler in 1998.
All of the excused jurors had testified they could recommend the death penalty if evidence showed it was justified, despite their personal views.
“The state is permitted to cull from the jury pool only those who would be unable to set aside their personal views and follow the law and the court’s instructions,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.
Three of the court’s seven justices also would have overturned Armstrong’s convictions on the grounds that racial bias may have infected jury selection.
Justice Goodwin Liu, writing for the dissenters, noted that the prosecutor struck four black male jurors, leaving no black man on the jury. Armstrong is black. The victim was white.
Liu said he was particularly concerned that the trial judge failed to probe the striking of one of those four men because the reasons for the removal raised “significant questions about the prosecutor’s credibility.”
“The record here contains a number of proffered explanations for the strike of a black juror that are implausible, misleading, contradicted by the record, or difficult to credit in light of the prosecutor’s disparate treatment of similarly situated jurors,” Liu wrote. “The trial court should have pressed the prosecutor on these points, but it did not.”
Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Court of Appeal Justice Dennis M. Perluss, filling a previous vacancy on the court, joined Liu’s dissent.
Armstrong was one of three men tried separately and convicted of attacking Sigler, 45, who had left her Long Beach home on the night of her death to buy cereal and milk.
Her body was found the next day on an embankment near the 405 Freeway.
Armstrong admitted he was with the others when they encountered Sigler and attacked her, but he downplayed his role.
Kevin Pearson and Armstrong’s older half-brother, Warren Hardy, were also sentenced to death for the killing.
Los Angeles prosecutors may now retry Armstrong on whether he should be again sentenced to death or to life without possibility of parole.