Appeals court OKs ruling overturning California murder convictions that led to death sentence

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SAN FRANCISCO — A federal court was right to overturn a California Death Row inmate's convictions for the 1987 slayings of a doctor and his wife after it determined prosecutors were substantially motivated by race when they rejected the only prospective African American juror from the trial, an appeals court ruled Monday.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Steven Crittenden was entitled to a new trial in the slayings of William Chiapella and his wife, Katherine.

"The Supreme Court has eloquently explained a jury selected without regard to race is a critical constitutional right," Judge Raymond Fisher, citing a 1991 Supreme Court ruling, wrote in the 2-1 decision.

A jury convicted Crittenden, who is African American, of murder in the slayings of Chiapella and his wife at their home in Chico, a college town about 90 miles north of Sacramento.

The couple had been bound and gagged and stabbed multiple times.

Prosecutors have said the couple had hired Crittenden to do yard work several months earlier, but he was having money problems and went to rob them. Among their evidence was a $3,000 check signed by Katherine Chiapella that Crittenden cashed, according to the Sacramento Bee (

A call to the Butte County district attorney's office was not immediately returned. The office could retry Crittenden.

A district court initially denied Crittenden's petition to overturn his conviction, saying the prosecutor would have rejected the prospective African American juror regardless of race because of her opposition to the death penalty.

But Fisher cited a 2010 9th Circuit ruling that found such rejections violate the Constitution if they are "motivated in substantial part" by race.

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