No Death Penalty for California Murderer

     SACRAMENTO (CN) — A man who shot a liquor store worker to death 17 years ago should not be put to death, as prosecutors wrongly excused a juror, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
     After David Gaines, 36, and his father, William Gaines, 87, closed their Stockton liquor store at 11 p.m. on June 11, 1999, they drove home in separate cars.
     As soon as the father shut his car door, a man punched him in the chin and shoulder, grabbed the brown paper lunch sack from his hand, and took off running.
     The son rushed outside with a can of Mace and said, “Hey!”
     The assailant, later identified as David Zaragoza, was already 10 to 30 feet down the street, with his back to William.
     Hearing gunshots, William ducked behind his car.
     He then found his son on the driveway in a pool of blood.
     Zaragoza and another man were 50 to 100 feet away, running down the street.
     Two years later, in 2001, a San Joaquin County jury found Zaragoza’s brother, Louis Rangel Zaragoza, guilty of the first-degree murder of David Gaines and of robbing his father.
     The jury sentenced him to death, which Zaragoza automatically appealed.
     The California Supreme Court reversed the death judgment Monday, and only the sentence of death.
     The ruling focuses on Prospective Juror No. 129, who told prosecutors she had religious convictions that would interfere with her ability to sit as a juror in a capital case.
     “Don’t feel I have the right to decide if a person is to die,” the juror wrote.
     A prosecutor challenged the juror for cause, based on her religious beliefs.
     Though the trial court acknowledged the question was not “very good” and that “we probably should have elaborated a little bit on this,” it excused the juror for lack of neutrality.
     The state supreme court found error in that ruling alone.
     “A prospective juror’s conscientious objection to capital punishment is not by itself a sufficient basis for excluding that person from jury service,” Judge Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote for the court. “Although the juror here also stated that her beliefs would make it ‘difficult’ to vote for execution, we have explained that ? [b]ecause the California death penalty sentencing process contemplates that jurors will take into account their own values in determining whether aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors such that the death penalty is warranted, the circumstance that a juror’s conscientious opinions or beliefs concerning the death penalty would make it very difficult for the juror ever to impose the death penalty is not equivalent to a determination that such beliefs will substantially impair the performance of his [or her] duties as a juror.'” (Brackets in original).
     Cuéllar added: “Prospective Juror No. 129’s written responses did not clearly reveal personal views that would interfere with her ability to judge the penalty based on the evidence presented. Rather, her written responses, at worst, left it uncertain whether she had the ability to perform as a juror. Because those responses did not ‘clearly reveal’ an inability to perform her duties, the trial court erred in granting the prosecution’s challenge for cause without examining the juror in court to ascertain her true state of mind. When a trial court errs in excusing a prospective juror for cause because of that person’s views concerning the death penalty, we must reverse the penalty. We do so in this case.”

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