Supreme Court allows reversal of 'Skid Row Stabber' convictions

Los Angeles' skid rowThe Supreme Court has let stand a ruling that overturns murder convictions in two slayings tied to the so-called Skid Row Stabber, who was thought to be responsible for the killing of as many as 10 homeless men in downtown Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

Bobby Joe Maxwell was convicted of two murders after a lengthy trial in 1984 and was sentenced to life in prison.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals set aside his convictions because a key witness for the prosecution, a notorious jailhouse informer named Sidney Storch, had been exposed as a “habitual liar.” Storch, who is now dead, was known to read newspaper stories in his jail cell and then offer testimony that would be useful to prosecutors in exchange for favors, Judge Richard Paez wrote.

The case against Maxwell was circumstantial. Prosecutors introduced evidence that three homeless men reported speaking with a man who resembled Maxwell near the stabbing scenes, but they were unable to identify Maxwell. Maxwell was found with a knife similar to one used in the murder, and his palm print was found near one victim.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented Monday. The passage of time and “the intervening loss of witnesses and evidence will likely make it impossible to retry” Maxwell, Scalia said. He faulted the 9th Circuit for second-guessing the California courts, which had upheld the conviction.

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-- David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: As seen from the rooftop of the Downtown Women's Center in this 2003 photo, the homeless prepare their makeshift dwellings before bedding down for the night on Los Angeles' skid row. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times              

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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