The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected California's plea to reinstate murder convictions in the 1970s-era Skid Row Stabber case in Los Angeles.
Two justices dissented from the court's decision to leave in place a federal appeals court ruling that overturned two murder convictions and a life sentence for Bobby Jo Maxwell. The appeals court said Maxwell was convicted based on a jailhouse informant's lies.
The informant was Sidney Storch, who was at the center of a scandal involving false testimony that defense lawyers said helped convict 225 defendants.
Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia said they would have reversed the appeals court ruling. Justice Sonia Sotomayor defended the ruling in a separate opinion.
The state must give Maxwell a new trial or release him.
Los Angeles County prosecutors did not immediately announce how they would proceed in light of the ruling.
"The district attorney's office will evaluate it and announce a decision in the future," said spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.
Shortly after the convictions were voided by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2010, District Attorney Steve Cooley did say that he and his staff had begun analyzing the decision and "we think we would retry it." He said there was corroborating evidence, and he suggested there could be some DNA available.
Maxwell was accused of 10 killings of transients that took place from 1978-79 in Los Angeles. Jurors convicted him of two, acquitted him of three and deadlocked on five of the charges.
The 9th Circuit said the two convictions were obtained through Storch by prosecutors who had little physical evidence and had failed to get usable eyewitness identifications in lineups.
One murder witness who viewed a lineup with Maxwell in it was quoted as saying, "You've got everyone up there that doesn't look like him."
The 9th Circuit focused on the false testimony of Storch and the prosecution's failure to disclose that the witness had made a secret deal with the prosecutor to win early release from his own prison sentence in return for his testimony.
The appeals court said Storch would glean information about inmates' cases from news stories and then claim they had confessed the details to him.
Storch has since died.