When Jeffrey Scott Young went on trial for murder, one prosecutor described him as “a walking billboard of hate.”
The white supremacist’s body was covered from head to toe with tattoos, including a swastika and other Nazi symbols, a Confederate flag and a tree with a noose dangling from it. Some made coded references to Adolf Hitler and the white power movement, while others were more blatant. “California Skinhead,” one said. Another included the n-word. During her closing argument in 2006, the prosecutor seized on the display as proof that Young deserved no mercy and should be sentenced to the death penalty.
“What you permanently put on your body,” she said, “says a whole lot about what you are thinking and about who you are.”
But the California Supreme Court disagreed, overturning the 45-year-old’s death sentence in a unanimous decision on Thursday. Young’s racist views, white supremacist tattoos, and affiliation with neo-Nazi groups like the Aryan Brotherhood and American Front weren’t relevant to the crime he was accused of committing, the court ruled, and prosecutors had been wrong to ask the jury to take into account those beliefs when deciding whether he should live or die.
“The prosecutor openly and repeatedly invited the jury to do precisely what the law does not allow: to weigh the offensive and reprehensible nature of defendant’s abstract beliefs in determining whether to impose the death penalty,” wrote Justice Leondra R. Kruger, who authored the opinion.
By all accounts, the murderous rampage was not racially motivated. Young had previously done prison time in Arizona, where he had been convicted attempting to rob a bank and a convenience store and attacking an inmate while incarcerated. A therapist testified that he had become a skinhead so that he could feel like belonged somewhere, and also so that he could protect himself in prison, characterizing him as a “follower.”
Early on the morning of July 18, 1999, Young, then 25, and two accomplices robbed a parking tollbooth near San Diego International Airport, covering their faces with nylon stockings. After employees handed over about $2,000 in cash, the robbers opened fire, fatally shooting the toll operator and parking lot manager in the back of the head as both lay face down with their arms up. Then, they stole a man’s car at gunpoint and fled, firing shots at another bystander in the process. Later, Young told police that the robbery had been poorly planned: They had forgotten to bring anything to tie up the witnesses, and, as adrenaline and nerves kicked in, he panicked that the victims would get away.
At Young’s first trial in 2005, the jury found him guilty but deadlocked on his sentence. He went back for a second trial in 2006.
“This case included the tragic circumstances of the robbery murders, which involved the needless close-range shooting of two defenseless employees who appeared to be complying with the robbers’ demands,” Kruger wrote, noting that plenty of evidence pointed to Young’s culpability in the senseless slaying. “But for whatever reason, the prosecution chose not to rely on this evidence alone."
Instead, prosecutors brought in seven different witnesses to talk about Young’s racist beliefs and support for neo-Nazi groups, including an expert from the Anti-Defamation League who explained the significance of his tattoos, the ruling says. Jurors were told that Young attended Aryan Nations meetings, flew a Nazi flag in his home and was passing his white supremacist philosophy on to his children. The jury unanimously handed down a death sentence.
The problem, the court said, was that prosecutors focused on Young’s views “for the very sake of highlighting their offensiveness,” rather than demonstrating any connection they might have to the crime, or what they said about his propensity for violence.
Some pieces of evidence were deemed relevant: After the parking lot robbery, Young had put red laces in his boots, which signified to other skinheads that he had drawn the blood “of an enemy” and claimed that had earned them because the toll operator he shot and killed, Teresa Perez, was “a Mexican.” That was fair to mention, because it established his guilt, the court ruled. Likewise, Young’s grandmother had testified that he was “a good family man,” and the court determined that it was appropriate for prosecutors to rebut that claim by pointing out that he had signed his letters to her with the number “88,” signifying “Heil Hitler.”
But Young’s hateful beliefs didn’t provide a motive for the crime, and the prosecution acted improperly in making that “inflammatory character evidence” a focal point of the trial and the centerpiece of their closing argument, the California Supreme Court determined. Doing so ran counter to the First Amendment: His views, however repugnant, shouldn’t have been a factor in the jury’s decision to apply the death penalty, since they didn’t explain his behavior or whether he would be likely to act again.
The ruling cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1992, which similarly overturned a Delaware man’s death sentence because jurors were told about his Aryan Brotherhood tattoo, which had no direct bearing on the crime.
“The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear, you don’t use a person’s abstract beliefs when it’s unrelated to the crime,” Kathy Moreno, the attorney who represented Young for his appeal, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This was not a hate crime.”
The Thursday ruling upheld Young’s murder convictions, but requires prosecutors to either reduce his sentence to life without the possibility of parole, or hold a new trial on the question of whether he should receive the death penalty. The San Diego County District Attorney’s office hasn’t yet decided which option they’ll choose, according to the Chronicle.
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