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As a small boy in Ohio, Larry Lucas was regularly beaten by his parents and grandmother, fed very little food, dressed in rags during brutal Midwest winters and punished with cigarette burns. His family even put chili powder on his genitals to stop his bed-wetting. None of that, however, was mentioned as mitigating evidence more than three decades later during the 1987 trial at which Lucas was sentenced to death for the murders of two elderly neighbors in Los Angeles County. On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the absence of that information was enough to negate Lucas’ death sentence. “Had defense counsel conducted an adequate investigation, readily available evidence might have been introduced that would have made the jury aware of [Lucas'] childhood experience of rejection and extraordinary abuse at the hands of his family,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote. “In turn,” he continued, “a reasonable probability exists that the jury would have found in this evidence some explanation for [Lucas'] criminal propensities and some basis for the exercise of mercy.” The case marks the sixth time since the start of 2003 that the justices have reversed a death penalty. The court has ruled on 32 capital cases during this time. George authored three reversals and concurred in the other three. He also dissented in two 4-3 cases where the majority affirmed the sentence. Santa Clara University School of Law professor Gerald Uelmen said that indicates George might be growing a little more skeptical about the death penalty. “His dissent rate [in general] is so low that it suggests that the death cases are getting real scrutiny on his part,” Uelmen said Monday. “And he doesn’t carry the majority to the extent he does in other cases.” The fact that the justices have split 4-3 — three affirmances and one reversal — on four death cases in the past year and a half also intrigues Uelmen. “We saw very few 4-3 splits on death cases during the first five, six years of the George court,” he said. “There were dissents, but usually one or two. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and George is very much a pivot point on how the death cases come out.” All told, George, who recused himself in one case, has voted against the death penalty in eight of the last 31 times it’s been put before him — an affirmance rate of 74 percent. In Monday’s case, In re Lucas, 04 C.D.O.S. 6666, there was concern by the high court that James Patterson, the lead defense lawyer at Lucas’ trial, had chosen to present no mitigating evidence that might have persuaded jurors to be lenient. Lucas was convicted of savagely stabbing to death 85-year-old neighbor Edwin Marriott and his 75-year-old wife, Mary, at their home in October 1986 while he was high on a combination of crystal methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. But the high court chided Patterson for declining at the penalty phase to produce “copious, reliable evidence” that Lucas’ childhood was the kind of living horror that one psychiatrist said “fosters pathology later on.” Besides beatings, Lucas, now 54, was starved, forced to sleep behind a stove or under his bed as punishment and excoriated by his grandmother as a “bastard” for being born out of wedlock. He arrived at school for the first day of first grade “beaten black and blue.” George said jurors needed to hear all that and more. “There exists genuine pathos in the considerable evidence that [Lucas] was a person who was put up for adoption at birth and reclaimed after five foster home placements at the age of two-and-a-half years,” George wrote, “and that as a small child, [he] was singled out for severe beatings by his mother, his stepfather and his grandmother, humiliated by being excluded from family meals, fed and clothed inadequately, subjected to bizarre disciplines and finally rejected and excluded from the family altogether. “Such evidence,” he said, “naturally would have given rise to greater understanding, if not also to sympathy.” The ruling isn’t clear about what happens next or whether Lucas is automatically deemed a lifer without parole. Cooley Godward partner Steven Friedlander, who represented Lucas, said Monday he was still analyzing that aspect of the ruling, but was pleased with the overall outcome. “I really think we had a compelling case and it was recognized in the decision,” he said. “We clearly have been hopeful throughout that Mr. Lucas’ claims would be heard.” L.A.-based Deputy Attorney General Mary Sanchez, who argued the state’s case, couldn’t be reached for comment.

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