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California Supreme Court overturns killer’s death sentence, citing intellectual disability

An inmate who has been on California’s death row for more than two decades may not be executed because he is intellectually disabled, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously Thursday.

In a decision written by Justice Carol A. Corrigan, the state’s highest court overturned the death sentence of Robert Lewis Jr., convicted of robbing and fatally shooting Milton Estell in Long Beach in 1983.

Lewis “has met his burden of proving he is intellectually disabled,” Corrigan wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2002 that intellectually disabled killers should not be executed, concluding that it was cruel and unusual to put to death a person with the mental age of a child.

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Lewis was examined by a psychiatrist and a psychologist when he was on trial, but they did not assess his cognitive abilities.

After a lawyer for Lewis challenged his sentence, the court assigned Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry to examine whether Lewis was disabled when he committed the crime.

Perry, who had previously presided over 29 death penalty cases and sentenced 12 killers to death, held several hearings and concluded that Lewis met the legal definition of intellectual impairment, known as mental retardation in the past.

Thursday’s decision adopted Perry’s finding. The court noted that a test found to be reliable showed Lewis had an IQ of 70 — 100 is normal — when he was about 10 years old.

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He had difficulties in school, was frequently required by school authorities to take IQ tests, repeated first grade, could not read and demonstrated difficulties with understanding, the evidence showed.

Prosecutors objected to the diagnosis, arguing that Lewis’ school failures may have been due to lack of motivation and his poor socioeconomic background.

They pointed to his success in gambling in Las Vegas, his ability to support himself though illegal activities, maintain lasting relationships and banter with police when questioned.

But the court said the evidence supported the findings by the judge assigned to examine the issue.

“His friends and siblings grew up in similar circumstances and attended the same schools, yet appeared to function at a significantly higher level,” Corrigan wrote.

The facts suggest Lewis “was unable, as opposed to unmotivated, to learn,” she said.

Lewis was convicted when he was 31. State prison records show he is now 65.

Estell, the victim, had run an advertisement to sell his car. Neighbors saw him talking to Lewis outside. Estell later was found dead in a closet, shot and stabbed, his mouth stuffed with toilet paper.

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Lewis’ fingerprints were found in three places in the house, including in a bathroom near the toilet paper, and he was driving Estell’s car when he was arrested.

Robert M. Sanger, Lewis’ lawyer, said he was pleased with the result.

“It was a long, hard fight,” he said.

Sanger said Lewis’ sentence will now be reduced to life without the possibility of parole.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan


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