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'Big Evil' conviction, death sentence overturned

The California Supreme Court on Monday overturned the conviction of one of L.A.'s most notorious gang leaders.

Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson, who police say committed or ordered 20 murders during the 1980s and early 1990s, was convicted in 1997 of ordering the deaths of two men as they sat at a car wash across the street from his parents' South Los Angeles home.

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His co-defendant, Michael Allen, was also convicted, and the two were sentenced to death.

At the trial, prosecutors argued successfully that Johnson, a onetime boy scout who became a leader in so-called 89 Family Bloods gang, ordered the murders of the two men as a rite of passage for a new member.

They called him one of the most cold-blooded killers in the city, with more notches on his belt than Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker serial killer.

But the Supreme Court voided the conviction Monday, saying the judge in the case improperly dismissed a juror who may have been planning to vote against a guilty verdict.

In a decision written by Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan, the court said that jurors at the time feared that Juror No. 11, who was not named, had prejudged the case based on his opinion about one of the witnesses.

The witness, Carl Connor, had said that he saw the murder, but records showed that he was clocked in at work at the time.

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"Connor explained that he and a coworker, 'Jose,' often clocked in for each other, so the records would indicate they were at work when in fact they were not," Corrigan wrote in her opinion.

Juror 11 didn't believe this explanation and said the reason was that he didn't think Hispanics were likely to lie at work.

His fellow jurors took this and other comments to mean that the juror had reached an opinion that was not based on evidence, and he was released from service by the judge.

The dismissal was not appropriate because there was no clear evidence that the juror had prejudged the case, the Supreme Court said.

It was not immediately clear what would happen next to Johnson and Allen. A spokeswoman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris said it was up to Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley to decide whether to re-try the two men.

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