In January, the California Supreme Court ruled that the death sentence of a man with a long criminal record was appropriate. On March 11, that ruling was rescinded.
The turnaround came after two justices appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Mariano-Florentino Cuellar and Leondra R. Kruger, were sworn into the court on Jan. 5.
On the date they were sworn in, the previously constituted court issued a 4-3 ruling leaving in place a death sentence for Gary Lee Grimes.
Grimes’ lawyer requested the court to reconsider its ruling, and some anticipated it would. Grimes was convicted of capital murder committed during a home invasion. In the penalty phase of the trial, the trial judge excluded testimony that would have supported evidence that Grimes was not the actual killer, and the judge sentenced him to death.
Cuellar and Kruger joined the dissenters in deciding to rehear the case in the prior ruling, as did Justices Goodwin Liu, another of Brown’s appointees, and Kathryn M. Werdeger. The decision vacated the prior ruling and set the case for a new hearing.
None of the three Brown appointees previously served as judges. Liu and Cuellar were law professors, and Kruger was a U.S. Assistant Attorney General.
The Brown appointees may steer the court to decide to take a second look at another death penalty case, that of William Richards. Liu dissented in a 4-3 decision in 2012 that upheld Richards’ murder conviction.
After three trials, Richards was convicted of killing his wife. Two of the trials resulted in hung juries. A dental expert in the third trial identified Richards’ bite mark on his wife, but recanted the testimony after the jury returned a guilty verdict.
The California Legislature later passed a bill adding discredited forensic testimony as grounds for a new trial. The California Innocence Project has asked the California Supreme Court to consider the case again in light of the new law.
“Brown certainly seems to have reshaped this court in a fairly dramatic way”
“Brown certainly seems to have reshaped this court in a fairly dramatic way,” said Jan Stiglitz, a co-founder of the California Innocence Project. “Brown has brought in not just people from the outside but also people who don’t have this background that sort of predisposes them to be cynical in criminal cases.”