A Los Angeles prosecutor in a 1998 murder case failed to disclose that a key witness in the gang-related killing had links to a competing gang and was on probation for robbery. The withholding of this potentially critical information prompted reversal the murder conviction by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week. It was a split 2-1 decision.
While “violence between street gangs is a scourge to communities” wrote Judge Alvin Hellerstein, a visiting judge from Manhattan, “prosecutors must be vigilant that excessive zeal does not violate a defendants constitutional right to a fair trial.”
Randall Amado was convicted by a Los Angeles jury in 1998 of aiding and abetting a murder in a public bus. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
After failing to win reversal in state court, Amado challenged the constitutionality of his conviction in federal court.
The prosecutor neglected to disclose material information about a witness that would have allowed Amado to challenge the credibility of that critical witness, the 9th Circuit said. And that violated his constitutional rights and entitles him to a new trial.
Two Crips, Robert Johnson and Wilbert Pugh, attacked a bus where high school student Corrie Williams was shot and killed in a rivalry between the Bounty Hunter Bloods and the 118 East Coast Crips.
Johnson, the alleged shooter, and Pugh attacked the bus because they believed members of the Bloods were on the bus as it drove through Crips territory.
Amado was arrested the next day in an area where Warren Hardy reported he heard from his balcony teenagers laughing about the shooting. Johnson was arrested and week later and Pugh a year after that.
The prosecutor told the defense Hardy’s name but never disclosed Hardy was affiliated with the Bloods and was on probation for a robbery. During the trial, Hardy could not identify Amado, although he described someone looking like Amado.
The defense was not able to impeach Hardy about his role in a competing gang.
“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,” Hellerstein wrote. He was joined by Judge William Fletcher.
In dissent, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson wrote that the majority ignores the U.S. Supreme Court warning that appeals courts should “curb our appetite when it comes to habeas review.”
Case: Amado v. Gonzalez, No. 11-56420