08 March 2006 :California's highest court overturned the death penalty for Gregory Sturm, convicted of murder, saying that a judge made remarks that could have prejudiced the jury that condemned him to death.
In the 5-2 opinion, the justices ruled that the trial judge's "inaccurate and disparaging" comments directed towards Sturm's lawyers and defence witnesses may have negatively influenced the panel's decision.
Sturm, 35, was 22 years old when he was sentenced to death by Judge Donald McCartin on February 26, 1993 for having murdered three colleagues at the auto parts store where he worked.
"The cumulative effect of the trial judge's comments requires a reversal of the death sentence," the justices wrote.
A first jury in the penalty phase of the trial deadlocked 10-2 against execution after finding that Sturm was not guilty of "premeditated and deliberate murder," while the second jury recommended Sturm be put to death.
The Supreme Court ruled it was "reasonably probable" that the second jury would have reached the same decision as the first "had the trial judge exhibited the patience, dignity and courtesy that is expected of all judges."
The justices said that while some of McCartin's remarks were innocuous, "the trial judge made comments in front of the jury that constituted misconduct at several crucial stances."
"The errors were sufficiently severe and pervasive that it was reasonably probable that the errors affected the jury's deliberations to defendant's detriment," the majority opinion states. Nearly 650 people are awaiting execution on California's death row, the most populous in the United States.