The California Supreme Court on Monday reversed a Santa Clara County double murderer's death sentence, finding that the prosecution's failure to turn over key evidence tainted his 1987 trial.
In a unanimous ruling, the seven-member court, which seldom overturns California death sentences, ordered a new penalty phase trial for Miguel Bacigalupo, who was sent to death row for the 1983 slayings of two brothers in their San Jose jewelry store. The Supreme Court left Bacigalupo's murder convictions intact, but concluded that prosecutorial misconduct could have altered the jury's death sentence recommendation.
The Supreme Court largely followed the findings of a superior court judge assigned to explore allegations that the lead prosecutor, now-Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Joyce Allegro, and her lead investigator decades ago did not reveal crucial evidence to the defense that a Colombian drug cartel was involved in the crime.
"Substantial evidence supports the (lower court's) determination and it is reasonably probable that petitioner's penalty phase jury would have returned a verdict of life in prison without parole had it heard the evidence withheld by the prosecution," Justice Joyce Kennard wrote for the court.
Bacigalupo has a separate appeal pending challenging his murder convictions on the same grounds, and the Supreme Court indicated it will rule later on those issues.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen,
Robert R. Bryan, Bacigalupo's lawyer, sharply criticized the DA's office for its conduct in a case cited in a 2006 series by this newspaper exploring breakdowns in the local criminal justice system.
"Our system doesn't work properly when this type of thing occurs," Bryan said.
The ruling wiping out a death sentence handed down during the Reagan administration highlights one of the central issues in the current debate over Proposition 34, a measure on the November ballot that would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As with most of California's more than 720 death row inmates, Bacigalupo's appeal has languished in the state Supreme Court for more than 20 years, and his case has never even reached the federal courts, where cases typically take another decade to resolve.
Proposition 34 backers say this bogged down system has become too costly for California to maintain. But death penalty supporters argue the punishment is still justified for the state's most heinous murderers, and that the system would cost less if the courts processed appeals more swiftly.
The appeal stems from Bacigalupo's conviction for killing Jose Luis Guerrero and Orestes Guerrero, owners of a jewelry store on The Alameda. At trial, Allegro argued that Bacigalupo shot the brothers in a straightforward jewelry heist. Bacigalupo, however, maintained that the Colombian mafia ordered him to the kill the brothers and that his family would have been murdered if he failed to carry out the "drug hit."
But evidence unearthed during the lengthy appeal suggested Allegro, and particularly her lead investigator, Sandra Williams, had strong information from a confidential informant that might have supported Bacigalupo's defense. For example, one witness flown in for the appellate hearings confirmed that shortly before the murders Bacigalupo had met with a cocaine trafficker with ties to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel.
Now-retired Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Richard Arnason, who conducted lengthy hearings into Bacigalupo's claims several years ago, found "credible" evidence that drug traffickers orchestrated the San Jose murders.
In his report to the Supreme Court, Arnason harshly criticized the Santa Clara County prosecution team, particularly Williams, a former DA investigator. While not as critical of Allegro, the report questioned her account and said "there are some issues regarding her credibility."
The Supreme Court did not mention Allegro or make any direct observations about the prosecution's tactics, but noted that Allegro mocked Bacigalupo's claims in front of the jury. Instead, the court found that the prosecution team as a whole violated a fundamental U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires prosecutors to disclose any information to the defense before trial that might be exculpatory.
Allegro did not respond to a request for comment.
Rosen said that although he doesn't know the details of Allegro's handling of the evidence, he considers it a prosecutor's responsibility to ensure all material is provided to the defense. "Any time you have a death penalty decision overturned, it should have everyone in the DA's office refocusing and making sure they're turning over all information they're supposed to," he said.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz