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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Witness’s Background Upends Gang Conviction

(CN) - A man convicted in relation to a gang-led murder deserves a new trial, the 9th Circuit ruled, finding that a witness's criminal background should have come to light.

High school student Corrie Williams was shot and killed in an outburst of southern Los Angeles gang rivalry between the Bounty Hunter Bloods and 118 East Coast Crips on Jan. 15, 1997.

Two Crips, Robert Johnson and Wilbert Pugh, had decided to lead an attack on the No. 53 bus Williams was riding because they knew members of the Bloods would also be on board as the bus drove through their territory.

The shooting occurred near the intersection of Imperial Highway and Avalon Boulevard.

While Johnson and Pugh fled to Milwaukee, local resident Warren Collins tipped off police the next day that he heard several teenagers in a yard near the site of the shooting, talking and laughing about the shooting.

When police arrived at the location, they found and arrested Randall Amado and the man he was with. They caught up with Johnson a week later, and they brought in Pugh about a year after the shooting.

Pugh, Johnson, and Amado were tried together before two juries in Los Angeles Superior Court. One jury concentrated on Johnson as the alleged shooter, and the other deliberated over the alleged role of Pugh and Amado as aiders and abettors.

Several witnesses confirmed that Pugh and Johnson had led the attack and that Johnson had done the shooting, but the only evidence for Amado's role in the incident came from the indirect testimony of the neighbor whose call led to the Jan. 16 arrest.

Though he originally identified himself as Collins, the neighbor's real name was Warren Hardy. He told police that he'd seen "a short, chubby boy with slicked-back hair and a pony-tail carrying a handgun and trailing a group of teenagers heading towards Avalon Boulevard" just before the incident, which matched Amado's description.

Amado was found in the area where Hardy said he overheard teenagers talking and laughing about the incident.

Hardy was afraid to testify against the gang members, so an LAPD detective delivered his testimony to the jury, which eventually convicted Amado on all charges. Amado was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison.

After the trial, Amado's lawyer discovered that Hardy had a prior robbery conviction, was on probation and had once been a member of a rival street gang, the Piru Bloods.

Amado then spent years seeking a new trial to no avail.

The Superior Court and the California Court of Appeal both denied his motion for a new trial, rejecting his claims that the prosecution's failure to disclose Hardy's probation report at trial had violated Brady v. Maryland. The Court of Appeal ruled, among other things, that Amado's lawyer should have discovered the information himself.

Amado filed a petition for federal habeas corpus relief after the California Supreme Court refused to review the Court of Appeal's ruling. In 2003, a magistrate judge in Los Angeles recommended that relief be granted based on a Brady violation, but the report languished for six years with no further action. Finally, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, ignoring the magistrate's recommendation, denied Amado's petition, finding that the state had not suppressed evidence, and that his lawyer had had the opportunity to talk to Hardy but had failed to do so.

Amado then took his case to the 9th Circuit, a three-judge panel of which reversed the lower court's ruling on Wednesday and ordered the state to retry him within 60 days or release him.

The divided panel found that the outcome of the trial may well have been different had Amado had all the information about Hardy at the time.

"The state withheld not one but three pieces of evidence that had the potential of undermining Hardy's testimony," wrote U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, sitting on the panel by designation from Manhattan. "First, Hardy had a robbery felony conviction. Defense counsel could have argued that this conviction rendered him an untrustworthy witness. Second, Hardy was on probation for that conviction at the time he testified. Defense counsel could have argued that Hardy was seeking favor with his probation officers by helping the police solve a well-publicized murder case.Third, Hardy was a former member of a Bloods gang, and the defense could have argued that Hardy was biased against a member or friend of the rival Crips."

Hellerstein added that "there is a reasonable probability that the suppressed information would have made a difference, causing the jury to view Hardy's implication of Amado with a great deal more suspicion."

Writing in dissent, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson argued that the majority's ruling goes against the U.S. Supreme Court's warning that, pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the circuit court should "curb our appetite when it comes to habeas review."

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