The California Supreme Court Monday unanimously overturned the conviction and death sentence of a man found guilty of killing two people and trying to kill a third person in a robbery in Indio nearly 16 years ago, citing juror misconduct.
Fred Lewis Weatherton was convicted of two counts of murder, with special circumstance allegations, in the Nov. 1, 1998, deaths of Latonya Roberson and Samuel Ortiz at Ortiz's house.
He was also convicted of the attempted murder of Nelva Bell, who had Roberson's year-old son with her at the time of the shooting, as well as robbery.
Weatherton, now 65 and on death row at San Quentin State Prison, was convicted in February 2002, and the jury recommended the following month that he be sentenced to death.
The state's high court reversed the judgments, finding that "juror misconduct during the guilt phase raises a substantial likelihood of actual bias," according to the opinion written by Justice Carol Corrigan.
It is rare for the court to overturn death penalty verdicts, especially by a unanimous vote, according to legal observers.
According to the court's opinion, a juror referred to as "P.P." told fellow panelists that he thought Weatherton was guilty before the trial was over, and talked about the case outside of deliberations, both of which are forbidden.
"He discussed the case during his daily commute, at lunch, during cigarette breaks, in court hallways, and in elevators ... Multiple jurors testified that, long before the prosecution rested its case, P.P. conveyed a belief in defendant's guilt. He also told jurors, both before and during deliberations, that defendant deserved the death penalty," the court's opinion states.
The trial court found that the juror committed misconduct, but that it did "not rise to the level that there is a substantial likelihood" of bias, and denied Weatherton's request for a new trial, according to the opinion.
On Halloween 1998, Weatherton, who was known as "Boo-Boo," was using crack at an Indio home along with Bell, Ortiz, Roberson and two other people. Weatherton "had no money, but was intent on obtaining more drugs," according to the court's opinion.
Later that night, Bell, Roberson and her young son went to Ortiz's house to spend the night, and Weatherton got more crack on credit from a drug dealer. Early the next morning, Weatherton, carrying a gun, kicked Ortiz's door open and demanded money, according to the opinion.
"Roberson swore she had none. Defendant replied, '(Expletive) I ain't playing with you,' and shot her in the forehead. Ortiz said, 'Boo-Boo, you can have my money,' saying his wallet was under the bed. Defendant retrieved the cash, then shot Ortiz in the head. Roberson was moaning; defendant shot her in the throat," the opinion states.
Bell, who was holding Roberson's son, pleaded with Weatherton not to shoot her and put the child down at Weatherton's direction. He then shot Bell in the back and face, and she played dead, according to the narrative detailed in the opinion.
Bell told another man and a police officer that "Boo-Boo" had shot them and did so "to rob us." Shoe prints that resembled the shoes Weatherton was wearing were tracked from the home where the shootings occurred to an area near Ortiz's home.
Bell later identified Weatherton as the shooter from a photographic lineup and "testified she remained '100 percent sure' defendant had shot her and the others," according to the court's opinion.
— City News Service.