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Courts overturn sentences for two California death row inmates and uphold another

death row prison door
The doorway to death row in the North Segregation Unit at San Quentin State Prison is notable for a rounded metal jail door and a sign that clearly marks its purpose.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Top courts weighed in Thursday on three long-running capital murder cases in California, throwing out two death sentences while affirming a third.

All three inmates had been convicted of murders that took place 15 to 35 years ago.

On Thursday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and death sentence of James Edward Hardy, originally found guilty of stabbing a woman and her son to death in 1981. Thursday’s court ruling called for a new trial, reversing the judgment of a district court that denied Hardy’s petition to challenge his conviction. 

A previous court determined that Hardy’s defense lawyer failed to investigate and present evidence that the prosecution’s key witness, Calvin Boyd, may have been the actual killer. 

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The appellate court agreed.

“The panel wrote that had counsel properly investigated and presented evidence that Boyd — the state’s key witness — actually committed the murders, there is a substantial probability the jury would have come to a different conclusion,” Judge Stanley Allen Bastian wrote in the opinion.

Criminal justice experts said Thursday’s decisions exemplify the extreme delays endemic in California death penalty cases and raise questions of whether justice is being served.  

“There are such backups in the ability to appoint counsel for appeals, in scheduling and in hearing the appeals that defendants wait many years to have their appeals overturned, even cases like this when they very well may be innocent,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit organization that provides analysis and information on issues related to capital punishment.

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Also Thursday, the California Supreme Court in a unanimous decision overturned the conviction and death sentence of Craigen Lewis Armstrong, finding that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders discharged a juror during the guilt phase of Armstrong’s trial without demonstrable reason to believe that the juror could not complete her duty. 

Armstrong was originally convicted in 2004 of killing three brothers in 2001.

“It doesn’t mean the person is not guilty, but they have legitimate arguments for why their convictions should not stand,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

In a separate ruling, the state high court affirmed the conviction and death sentence of Michael Ray Burgener, who was found guilty and sentenced to death for murdering a man during a convenience store robbery in 1981. Burgener’s case has spent more than 30 years bouncing from trial courts to appellate courts. 

“One reason for the long delay between crime and affirmance is that this is the fourth time the defendant’s case is before the court,”  David Ettinger, an attorney who frequently argues cases before the California high court, said in a blog post

The court affirmed Burgener’s conviction in 1986, but reversed the death penalty. Then, in 2003 and 2009, the court reversed the penalty twice more after it had been reinstated.

In addition, new lawyers and judges have repeatedly had to take over the 35-year-old case. The judge who presided at Burgener’s penalty retrial died, as did the judge who replaced him. The attorney who defended Burgener is also no longer living.  

“What is interesting about these three decisions is what they collectively show about California’s death penalty system,” Dunham said. “Whatever you think about the death penalty itself, these cases all show that the courts have a seriously hard time providing fair trials and fair hearings when the death penalty is involved.”  

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According to the Department of Corrections, there are 746 inmates on death row in California. 

“There are a lot of people on death row, but when you have this many cases in one day, it is an indication that the courts are troubled about this,” Levenson said. “Here are repeated situations where the courts do not have confidence in the verdict. That’s a problem that should worry everybody because it shows we have people on death row who may not belong there.”

erica.evans@latimes.com

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