A condemned Santa Clara County killer has been sprung from death row after nearly three decades, spared the possibility of execution because prosecutorial misconduct was found to have marred his 1987 trial.
The District Attorney's Office on Tuesday notified a judge that it will not retry the penalty phase of Miguel Bacigalupo's murder case, satisfied he will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole unless he can overturn his murder convictions in further appeals.
In an unusual ruling, the California Supreme Court in 2012 scrapped Bacigalupo's death sentence, finding that the prosecution's failure to turn over key evidence tainted his 1987 trial. The Supreme Court left intact Bacigalupo's convictions for murdering two brothers in a San Jose jewelry store in 1983, but concluded the misconduct could have tarnished the jury's decision to recommend the death penalty.
District Attorney Jeff Rosen could have retried the penalty phase, but opted for a life sentence instead of pursuing another trial so many years after the crime.
"I decided, in the interests of justice, not to retry the penalty phase because ... it is unlikely that a jury would return a death verdict more than 30 years after these murders," Rosen said in a statement.
The Supreme Court found that the lead prosecutor in the original case -- Joyce Allego, who later became a judge and retired from the bench last year -- and her lead investigator did not reveal crucial evidence to the defense that a Colombian drug cartel was heavily involved in the murders. The evidence was crucial to Bacigalupo's trial defense.
Robert Bryan, Bacigalupo's lawyer, said Tuesday he is pressing forward with an appeal in federal court to overturn the murder convictions based on the same misconduct.
"The system worked," Bryan said of the DA's decision to drop the death penalty. "But the system only worked after sputtering, kicking and growling."
The lengthy legal battle 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 basic jewelry heist, mocking his claim that the Colombian mafia ordered him the carry out the murders or risk the death of his family.
But evidence unearthed in the ensuing decades suggested that the prosecution team, particularly lead investigator Sandra Williams, had strong information from a confidential informant that supported Bacigalupo's defense. And that material was never turned over to defense lawyers at trial.
Bacigalupo was unlikely to face execution soon. California has not had an execution in eight years as a result of legal battles over its lethal injection method, and none are expected at least in the next year on a death row with more than 740 inmates.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz