California Supreme Court overturns death penalty in 1993 killings of two Target employees

California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu in 2011
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The California Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday to overturn the death sentence of a man convicted of killing two former co-workers at a Target store in 1993 after he had been passed over for promotion.

Sergio Dujuan Nelson was 19 when he shot and killed Robin Shirley and Lee Thompson, who had worked with him at a Target store in La Verne.

Nelson rode his bike to the Target store and shot the victims as they sat in a car in a parking lot. He had quit his job but the victims still worked at the store.


Nelson, who had no prior criminal history, admitted the killings but argued they stemmed from depression.

During the penalty phase of his trial, a jury deadlocked on whether he should be sentenced to life without parole or to death.

A second jury empaneled to recommend Nelson’s sentence also had trouble reaching a decision.

After being told the jury was deadlocked, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Clarence Stromwall, a Reagan appointee who died in 1996, allowed the jurors to be questioned about their deliberations and removed one of the holdouts.

The state high court said Nelson was entitled to a new trial on his sentence because the death verdict had been tainted by “the intrusive influence” of the trial court’s questions and comments.

“A trial court may intervene in jury deliberations where it receives reports of juror misconduct or in response to an impasse, but such interventions must be limited and undertaken with the utmost respect for the sanctity of the deliberative process,” Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the court.

“In this case, the trial court went considerably beyond any permissible intervention and took action that undermined the sanctity of jury deliberations and invaded the jurors‘ mental processes,” he added.

The court also decided, 5-2, to overturn Nelson’s special-circumstance conviction of lying in wait.

“The fact that there was substantial evidence of premeditation and deliberation does not necessarily mean there was substantial evidence of watching and waiting for an opportune time to act,” Liu wrote for the majority.

In a dissent, Justice Carol A. Corrigan, joined by Justice Ming Chin, said they would have upheld the conviction because Nelson killed the victims in an “ambush.”

Twitter: @mauradolan


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