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Los Angeles DA seeks to lift death sentence for man convicted in 1994 killing of two college students

Raymond Oscar Butler was convicted of killing Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura. He received a second, separate death sentence for participating in the murder of a fellow inmate.
Image: Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón speaks at an end-of-year news conference on Dec. 8.Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock file

LOS ANGELES — The office of embattled Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has asked a judge to lift the sentence of a man condemned to die for killing two college students during a 1994 carjacking, according to court documents obtained by NBC News.

The 264-page resentencing recommendation, filed July 11 in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Deputy District Attorney Shelan Joseph, seeks to change Raymond Oscar Butler’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

The filing argues that Butler, now 47, committed the murders of the two college students when he was 18 years old after having endured violence and trauma throughout his childhood. As a result, he suffered mental illness and cognitive impairment before and at the time of the killings, according to the petition.

“The defendant today is not the same, cognitively immature teen-ager who murdered two innocent victims in this case. … the interests are best served by resentencing the defendant,” the petition reads. 

The petition goes on to add that a hearing is not necessary if all parties agree to the resentencing.

Butler was convicted in 1996 of shooting Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura, both 19-year-old film students at Marymount College, in the backs of their heads in a Southern California grocery store parking lot. The case drew international outrage and prompted the U.S. ambassador to Japan to issue a televised apology, The New York Times reported in 1994.

Butler was later found guilty, after a trial and a retrial, of taking part in the 1995 fatal stabbing and beating of a fellow inmate. He was again sentenced to death.

The recent filing does not seek to lift the capital sentence for the 1995 inmate attack.

Joseph noted, however, that the jurors in Butler’s double murder trial “had a difficult time arriving at a unanimous sentence,” including twice declaring they were deadlocked. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the DA's office said: "Mr. Butler has two separate cases. One case involved the murder of the two college students. This case came before our office due to the California Supreme Court deciding there was a prima facie issue of juror misconduct."

"After reviewing the juror misconduct claim and weighing the equities, our office found it to be in the interest of justice to resentence Butler to life without the possibility of parole in this case. The DA’s office is not seeking Butler’s release from prison. In fact, Mr. Butler will remain sentenced to death in case TA041759. The court hearing will be public."

"District Attorney Gascón remains committed to ending the death penalty in Los Angeles because it is racist in its application, morally untenable, irreversible, expensive and it has never been shown to deter crime."

A request for comment from Butler’s attorney was not immediately returned.

The death penalty in California

Capital punishment, which is legal in California, was twice affirmed by voters in ballot measures in 2012 and 2016. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in 2019 placing a moratorium on the death penalty and closing death row, arguing the system is discriminatory, wastes billions of dollars, is subject to error and has not deterred violent crime.

The order did not call for releasing anyone from prison or otherwise altering any current conviction or sentence. 

Gascón, a progressive Democrat who became Los Angeles County district attorney in 2020, said he opposes the death penalty under any circumstance. Shortly after he took office, he issued a flurry of special directives, including ending a reliance on cash bail and requests for enhanced sentences, not seeking the death penalty and re-evaluating sentences for people who have served 15 years in prison.

Since then, the office has been revisiting several dozen previous capital cases, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the cases.

The abrupt changes to policy sparked a backlash within the district attorney's office and forced Gascón to walk back some of his directives, such as a ban on trying juveniles as adults and sentencing enhancements for certain violent crimes.

He now faces a second recall effort after a first one failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for a special election. County officials are determining whether there are enough valid signatures on the second recall petition to trigger an election.

In February, more than 80% of the members of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining group for more than 800 deputy DAs in the county, participated in an internal recall referendum on their boss. Almost 98% of the voters favored a recall.

Former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, also a progressive Democrat, was recalled in June and left his job in July.