Court overturns white supremacist's death sentence over prosecution focus on racist, anti-Semitic views

Court overturns white supremacist's death sentence over prosecution focus on racist, anti-Semitic views

The California Supreme Court last week unanimously overturned a white supremacist’s death sentence, citing the prosecution’s heavy emphasis on the defendant’s racist and Nazi tattoos.

Jeffrey Scott Young, 45, was found guilty of murder in a 2006 trial. But more than 10 years later, the court ruled on Thursday that his racist and anti-Semitic views weren’t relevant to his murder charge and that the jury shouldn’t have taken them into account when they were mulling over whether to assign him the death penalty, the court wrote in its opinion.

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“We affirm the judgment as to guilt,” wrote Justice Leondra Kruger in the ruling. “But we find the trial court erred at the penalty retrial by permitting the prosecution to make improper use of inflammatory character evidence for purposes unrelated to any legitimate issue in the proceeding.”

“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,” Kruger wrote.

Young’s body is covered in tattoos, including a swastika, a Confederate flag and the N-word. One tattoo referenced Adolf Hitler, while another said “California Skinhead” in red and black ink, the colors of Nazi Germany, according to court documents.

But the murder allegedly wasn’t racially motivated. In July 1999, 25-year-old Young and two others robbed a parking tollbooth in San Diego before fatally shooting the toll operator and parking lot manager, according to court documents. Young later told police that the group had forgotten to bring supplies to tie up the witnesses and that “panic and adrenaline” led him to open fire out of fear the victims might get away.

During Young’s murder trial, prosecutors brought in seven witnesses to talk about Young’s racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, and one described him as a “walking billboard of hate,” adding that “what you permanently put on your body says a whole lot about what you are thinking about and about who you are.”

By using this argument, the prosecutors focused on the beliefs “for the very sake of highlighting their offensiveness” rather than showing how they might be connected to the crime or whether Young was likely to murder again, Kruger wrote.

Prosecutors will now either reduce his sentence to life without the possibility of parole or hold a new trial over whether to impose a death sentence.