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Judge's remarks about 'horrible experiences' with plumbers lead to a murder conviction being thrown out

The Times' Matt Hamilton writes about the 2014 conviction of Vincent Tatum in the 2013 shooting death of Victor Valentine, 42, in Willowbrook. Tatum's conviction was thrown out last week by a three-judge panel of California's 2nd District Court of Appeal. 

If Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Eleanor J. Hunter’s experiences with plumbers had been better, the murder case of Vincent Tatum might have gone differently.

Addressing a panel of potential jurors in her Compton courtroom, Hunter explained the importance of not prejudging witnesses and used her unfortunate run-ins with the tradesmen to illustrate her point.

Hunter said that she had “had horrible experiences with plumbers … during remodels or whatever, just horrible experiences.”

“If I hear somebody is coming in, and I hear he’s a plumber, I’m thinking, ‘God, he’s not going to be telling the truth,’” Hunter said.

The problem, according to a recent appeals court decision, was that Tatum, the defendant, worked for a plumbing contractor who was his key alibi. The contractor testified that Tatum was at work at the time of the slaying — a statement the prosecutor argued was a lie to protect his friend. 

Jurors in the 2014 trial discounted the testimony and convicted Tatum of murder and attempted murder. Tatum was sentenced to 114 years in prison.

A divided three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal threw out his conviction last week, ruling that Hunter’s remarks on plumbers — and her rejection of a defense motion for a new trial — tainted the jury pool and resulted in an unfair trial.


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