Death Sentences Lowered to Life Without Parole for Two Men at DA's Request

Death Sentences Lowered to Life Without Parole for Two Men at DA's Request
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón speaks at a press conference in Los Angeles, on Dec. 8, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
City News Service

LOS ANGELES—Two convicted murderers who were sentenced to death, including a Hollywood man who was convicted of using a bottle of cyanide-laced gin to poison his neighbor, have been re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at the request of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, according to court papers released Aug. 16.

In a written ruling, Superior Court Judge William Ryan vacated the death sentences of James N. Blair and Anderson Hawthorne Jr. and ordered the two to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

The judge noted that the prosecution and the defense had filed a joint petition to vacate the death sentence of Blair, whom the defense alleges has Alzheimer's-related dementia and cannot comprehend why he is in prison or that he is on death row.

"Petitioner is currently 82 years old and has little hope of any improvement to his condition. Indeed, the petitioner will likely only continue to decompensate further for the remainder of his life," the judge noted. "In the instant case, petitioner lacks both memory of his crime and any level of understanding as to why he is to be executed. Petitioner's advanced Alzheimer's dementia has rendered him incapable of rationally understanding his death sentence and he is, therefore, incompetent to be executed."

Blair was convicted in 1989 of first-degree murder, along with the special circumstance allegation of murder by poison of his neighbor, Dorothy Green.

Green and another neighbor, Rhoda Miller, were sickened after drinking from the bottle of gin sent over by Blair in September 1984, and later tests of samples of gin from the bottle revealed that it contained sodium cyanide, according to a California Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that upheld his conviction and death sentence.

Blair was initially convicted of trying to kill the two women.

Green fell into a coma that lasted for several months, sustained brain damage, and survived for almost two years before dying from pneumonia in July 1986, according to the Supreme Court's ruling.

Blair was then charged with her murder.

During his trial, the defendant unsuccessfully attempted to establish that cyanide poisoning was not the cause of Green's death.

Miller was sickened but survived.

Meanwhile, in Hawthorne's case, the judge noted that the prosecution attached reports by two neuropsychiatrists who concluded that the defendant is intellectually disabled, mentally retarded, and psychiatrically impaired and found that the evidence of intellectual disabilities "weighs heavily in favor of resentencing."

Hawthorne, now 61, was 22 at the time of Dec. 18, 1982, killings of Kirk Thomas and Jimmy Lee Mamon and the attempted murders of three other people in the parking lot of a video arcade on San Pedro Street in Los Angeles.

In a 1992 ruling upholding Hawthorne's conviction and death sentence, the California Supreme Court noted that "the evidence adduced at trial suggests the crimes were precipitated by some underlying but unspecified gang hostility."

Hawthorne had been transferred off of death row under a pilot program that allows condemned inmates to be housed at a lower security level where they have access to additional job placement opportunities, according to the judge's ruling.

The re-sentencing requests are among those that have been made since District Attorney George Gascón took office in December 2020.

In a directive issued the day he was sworn in, the county's top prosecutor said "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case" and vowed that the office "will engage in a thorough review of every existing death penalty judgment from Los Angeles County with the goal of removing the sentence of death."

Five former death row inmates, including four with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, have subsequently been re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to a report released in December 2021 by Gascón's office.

A hearing is set for Sept. 21 on a request by the District Attorney's Office to re-sentence a man who was sentenced to death for killing two Marymount College students in a San Pedro supermarket parking lot.

In a re-sentencing motion, Deputy District Attorney Shelan Joseph wrote that Raymond Oscar Butler is "not the same, cognitively immature teenager who murdered the two innocent victims in this case" and that "the interest of justice requires that the defendant be re-sentenced" to life without the possibility of parole.

Butler, who was 18 at the time of the crime and is now 47, was sentenced to death for the March 25, 1994, shooting deaths of Takuma Ito, a Japanese citizen, and Go Matsuura, a U.S. citizen who grew up primarily in Japan, in the parking lot of a Ralphs store.

Ito and Matsuura, both aspiring filmmakers, were shot once each in the back of the head. Ito's Honda Civic was then stolen.

The murders of Ito and Matsuura stunned Japan, made headlines there and in the United States, and prompted expressions of regret from then-President Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The prosecutor noted in her motion that the victims' family members were sent electronic messages by the District Attorney's Office under state law that notifies them about their right to be in court and that Matsuura's father responded back, "I think California judicial system is the habeas itself. It contains no right for victim, and only the right for convicted."

Following his conviction for the killings, Butler was found guilty and sentenced to death for his role in the March 26, 1995, jailhouse stabbing death of Tyrone Flemming in an attack that also involved two other jail inmates while Butler was awaiting trial for the murders of Ito and Matsuura.

"The fact that Butler is already serving a sentence of death on a separate case further mitigates toward a finding that it is not in the interest of justice to continue to litigate the instant matter," Joseph wrote in her motion.

Outside court, Joseph said the District Attorney's Office is "not even looking" at the case involving the jailhouse killing.