LOS ANGELES – A California appeals court has thrown out a murder conviction, ruling that a judge's comments about her poor experiences with plumbers damaged the defendant's chances of a fair trial.
Vincent Tatum, who worked for a plumbing contractor whose testimony was key to his defense, was convicted in 2014 of the shooting death of a man following a dispute in Los Angeles.
In their appeal, defense lawyers cited comments Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eleanor Hunter made while addressing potential jurors on the importance of not prejudging witnesses. To prove her point, Hunter recounted what she called "horrible" encounters with plumbers during remodels to her house.
"If I hear somebody is coming in, and I hear he's a plumber, I'm thinking, 'God, he's not going to be telling the truth,'" Hunter told jurors.
The problem, according to the appeals court decision, was that Tatum worked for a plumbing contractor who was his key alibi. The contractor testified that Tatum was at work at the time of the slaying — a statement the prosecutor argued was a lie to protect his friend.
Jurors in the 2014 trial discounted the testimony and convicted Tatum of murder and attempted murder. Tatum was sentenced to 114 years in prison.
A divided three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal tossed Tatum's conviction last week, ruling that Hunter's remarks on plumbers tainted the jury pool and resulted in an unfair trial, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday (http://lat.ms/2dG2tOJ).
"The court's statement that plumbers who came into court were liars validated the prosecutor's argument, irreparably damaging Tatum's chance of receiving a fair trial," two of the three justices on the appellate panel wrote in an Oct. 3 ruling obtained by the Times.
Such comments "interfered with (Tatum's) constitutional right to a jury trial," the judges added.
Hunter could not be reached for comment.
The attorney general's office has a few weeks to ask the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision.
If the high court declines to review the case, prosecutors must decide whether to retry Tatum, now 50. He remains in custody at California State Prison in Lancaster. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office declined to comment.
Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/