Retrial Ordered in 1981 California Murder Case

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An appeals court awarded habeas relief Friday to a man convicted of the 1981 brutal kidnapping and murder of a young couple in California.
     Kevin Thorpe and Laura Craig had been abducted while driving through Madeline, Calif., on Jan. 11, 1981, on their way to college.
     The trio convicted of killing the couple – Joseph Shelton, Benjamin Silva and Norman Thomas – have varying accounts of the ordeal.
     Central to the jury’s finding that the murder was premeditated was Shelton’s admission that they had discussed kidnapping and killing a girl a few weeks before they abducted Thorpe and Craig.
     Apparently the assailants had spotted Thorpe and Craig at a gas station, followed them down the road and used a red light to make them pull them over.
     Silva and Thomas hopped in the car and abducted the couple at gunpoint. With Shelton driving behind, they soon arrived at a cabin in the woods.
     The assailants kept Thorpe chained to a tree overnight. Shelton and Silva walked him up a hill the next day where Silva mowed him down with a machine gun.
     They held Craig a few days longer, but Shelton and Silva eventually put her back in the car, and Silva shot and killed her on the side of the road.
     Shelton claimed he was intoxicated on drugs and alcohol on the night of the kidnapping and Thorpe’s murder. He said he only went along with it because he feared Silva would “kill him and his family” if he didn’t.
     He claimed to have no suspicion that Silva was planning to kill either Thorpe or Craig when he accompanied the man on the murders.
     Though Shelton admitted to shooting Thorpe after Silva had emptied one and a half clips into the man, he said he did so out of fear for his life and that he tried not to aim at the victim.
     Thomas undermined that testimony by claiming that none of the men were on drugs or alcohol the night of the kidnapping.
     Thomas said it was Shelton, not Silva, who chained Thorpe to a tree. He also testified that Shelton was armed when he and Silva took Thorpe up the hill.
     To ensure that no one would hear the gunfire, Shelton told Thomas to turn up the stereo volume, Thomas claimed.
     Thomas also said Shelton later laughed when recounting Thorpe’s murder to him and that Shelton said he told Thorpe “to look at the mountain because it was the last thing he would see,” according to the ruling.
     Serving 40 years to life for the first-degree murder of Thorpe, second-degree murder of Craig, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of theft and two weapons charges, Shelton sought federal habeas relief on the basis of evidence withheld from the defense.
     The prosecution never revealed to the defense that it offered Thomas a secret deal not to test his mental competency until after he testified against Thorpe.
     A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit found Friday that this failure to disclose the deal blocked Shelton from questioning the competency of the prosecution’s key witness.
     “Evidence that the prosecution believed Thomas to be incompetent was powerful fodder for impeaching his testimony against Shelton,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the court.
     Thomas’ testimony was “central to the prosecution’s case that Shelton premeditated and deliberated regarding Thorpe’s murder,” the ruling continues.
     Despite finding Lassen County District Attorney Paul “DePasquale’s misconduct inexcusable,” the panel conceded that the record is nevertheless replete with other evidence regarding Shelton’s commission of the other crimes.
     Finding that the secret deal would have affected the verdict only on Shelton’s first-degree murder charge for killing Thorpe, the court refused to grant Shelton relief on his other convictions.
     The U.S. District Court of Northern California must retry Shelton on the first-degree murder charge within a reasonable time, or resentence him based on the remaining convictions, the ruling states.

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