The death penalty is off the table for Cleamon Johnson, an alleged Los Angeles gang leader accused of killing five people during the 1990s. Now, even the special circumstances that would prohibit parole have been stricken.
Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis Rappé ruled that the racist conduct of the LAPD investigating officer and the failure of the DA to disclose his conduct for four years were grounds, under the Racial Justice Act, to dismiss all special circumstances on all counts against Johnson.
Johnson was sentenced to death, with Michael Allen, in 1997 for the killing of Donald Ray Loggins and Payton Beroit. But in 2011, the state Supreme Court reversed Johnson’s convictions and ordered a retrial after finding that the judge had improperly removed a juror from his trial.
In 2014, prosecutors filed new charges against Johnson and Allen in the Loggins/Beroit killings. They added three additional murder charges and one attempted murder charge, all of which occurred in the early 1990s, against Johnson.
But as the Los Angeles Times reports, the day after filing the new charges, an LAPD detective made racist remarks over drinks with Deputy DA Robert Rabbani, who was prosecuting Johnson, Leslie Hinshaw, then a law clerk in the DA’s office, and Deputy Federal Public Defender Peter Arian. Detective Brian McCartin referred to his experience with gangs and used the n-word to describe gang members. Rabbani, Arian, and Hinshaw reportedly told McCartin that the word was racist and inappropriate, and all three later documented the conversation.
But the prosecution did not report the remarks at the time to the defense in its request for exculpatory evidence, waiting four years before doing so. Sarah Sanger, Chair of the DPF Board, in her private capacity as an attorney on Johnson’s defense team, then argued that the conversation was evidence that the case was tainted by racism, violating the Racial Justice Act. (The bill, passed in 2020, applies only prospectively in cases in which judgment has not been entered before January 1, 2021. Johnson’s conviction was overturned, and he is still awaiting retrial, so no judgment had been entered.)
After hearing testimony and considering hundreds of pages of written material, Judge Rappé dismissed all of the special circumstances. The decision means Johnson, if convicted (Allen died in the Men’s Central Jail in LA in February), could receive a sentence of life with parole.
It is a significant victory in a case that the Sanger, Swysen & Dunkle law firm has been involved with since 2007, when senior partner Robert M. Sanger (a DPF board member) was appointed to file a habeas petition by the state Supreme Court, while Johnson was on death row. The court reversed his case in 2011, and the Los Angeles Superior Court, at Johnson’s request, appointed Robert Sanger to represent him for a retrial in January 2012. Shortly after passing the Bar, in late 2018, Sarah Sanger joined Johnson’s defense team.