LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A state appeals court panel Friday reversed the convictions of two ex-convicts for the murder of a 3-year-old boy who was struck by gunfire during a shootout between the two men in the parking lot of a Compton liquor store.
The three-justice panel from California's 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed with the defense's contention that a judge had erred in failing to instruct jurors in the case of Kevaughn Harris and Dwayne Ward on the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter under a heat of passion theory, along with the lesser offense of attempted voluntary manslaughter involving the two men shooting at each other.
The appellate court panel found that "the evidence supported the giving of these instructions."
The prosecution can decide whether to retry the two for second-degree murder of Franklin Pon-Ros, along with the attempted murders of each other, the justices noted. If the prosecution opts not to retry those charges the convictions of Harris and Ward will be reduced to voluntary manslaughter and attempted voluntary manslaughter and re-sentenced accordingly, according to the 55-page ruling.
The two Compton residents were convicted in December 2019 of one count each of second-degree murder and attempted murder -- the two counts affected by the ruling -- as well as one count each of shooting at an occupied vehicle and possession of a firearm by a felon, the latter of which were upheld by the appellate court.
Jurors deadlocked on gang allegations against the two, but Superior Court Judge Pat Connolly said at their sentencing last year that he thought it was very clear that it was the motivation for the shootout at a time when people were going in and out of the store.
"This is a case that is as tragic a case that we will ever see," the judge said then. "This did not need to happen."
At the February 2021 sentencing, the judge imposed the longest term -- 103 years to life -- on Harris, noting that he armed himself with a gun before going to the liquor store with his girlfriend and his girlfriend's young son, who wound up being killed.
The judge said Harris, now 32, fired first and then used the boy and the boy's mother as a "shield" after his gun jammed during the Jan. 20, 2018, gunfight in the 2800 block of West Alondra Boulevard.
The toddler, who was in a car seat in the back seat of a car, was struck by the gunfire, but his mother was not injured.
Ward, now 34, was sentenced to 89 years to life after expressing remorse in court.
The judge said he believed that Ward's words "rang true," but noted that Ward had waited with a gun for Harris to come out of the liquor store.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies responding to a 911 call were sent to the 17200 block of South Central Avenue in Carson, where they found Harris and his girlfriend with the mortally wounded child, who was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Ward, who had a 2013 conviction for robbery, surrendered to homicide detectives two days after the shooting. Harris, who had a 2012 conviction for attempted robbery, was subsequently arrested.
Family members of the victim, including several of his young cousins, said in statements read in court at the sentencing that they couldn't believe it when they heard the boy had been killed, with one writing that it "felt like a nightmare."