Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has asked a judge to reverse the death sentence of a man convicted of slaying two Marymount California University students during a 1994 carjacking in a San Pedro supermarket parking lot.
In a 264-page resentencing recommendation filed earlier this month in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Gascón said Raymond Oscar Butler, who was 18 when he killed Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura, should instead be resentenced to life in prison without parole because at the time he suffered “significant, cognitive impairment,” meaning his brain was not developed enough to regulate his behavior.
Butler’s mental state was further impaired by a history of trauma and mental illness, causing him to use alcohol and drugs daily to numb his emotional distress, according to the motion.
The resentencing request does not seek to lift a separate death sentence Butler received in 2012 for the fatal jailhouse stabbing of fellow inmate Tyrone Flemming while awaiting trial for the murders of Ito and Matsuura.
Death penalty ‘racist, morally untenable’
“The D.A.’s Office is not seeking Butler’s release from prison,” spokesman Greg Risling said, adding that Gascón became involved in Butler’s case after the California Supreme Court determined there was a juror misconduct issue during the trial for Ito and Matsuura’s murders.
“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,” Risling said.
Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, which represents about 800 Los Angeles County prosecutors, said Gascón position is at odds with jurisprudence.
“Our justice system relies on three procedural principles,” he said. “This includes transparency, where we litigate in open court unless there’s a compelling reason not to. Second, we respect a jury’s findings, even if the jurors don’t see things our way. And third, the adversarial system, when staffed with ethical and passionate advocates, is the best engine for getting to the truth.
“George Gascón doesn’t subscribe, understand, or agree with these values. And, as this case makes clear, he still believes he is above the law and beyond question.”
The March 25, 1994, shootings of Ito, a Japanese citizen, and Matsuura, a U.S. citizen who grew up primarily in Japan, garnered international headlines.
Ito and Matsuura, both aspiring filmmakers, had just finished having dinner with friends and were coming back from Gardena when they pulled into a Ralphs supermarket parking lot to buy groceries. Ito, who was driving, was about to get out of his 1994 Honda Civic when he was held up by Butler, who wanted the car.
Butler, now 46, shot both Ito and Matsuura, who was in the passenger seat, in the back of the head. He tossed them both out of the Civic before he drove off in the car.
The two young men lay unconscious and bleeding on the asphalt until a girl came out of Ralphs and called 911. Although both were still alive when they were rushed to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, they were already brain dead and were put on life support until their parents could fly in from Japan, confer with doctors and make the decision to take them off life support.
Butler was arrested a few days later when an eyewitness identified him in a photo lineup.
The murders of Ito and Matsuura stunned Japan and prompted expressions of regret from President Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Japan. The crime also was the subject of a documentary titled “Lives Interrupted.”
Butler’s case isn’t the first time Gascón has intervened to reduce sentences for some high-profile convicted killers and at least one violent sex offender, all of whom have reoffended.
Andrew Cachu was originally tried in adult court even though he was two months shy of his 18th birthday when he shot and killed a man outside a Palmdale restaurant in March 2015. He was released from custody late last year after serving just six years of a 50-year prison sentence when a prosecutor, acting on Gascon’s order, refused to call witnesses during a disposition hearing, effectively keeping the case in juvenile court.
Cachu was arrested last week after allegedly being found with a gun and drugs following a three-mile car chase involving Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.
In another instance, Victor Bibiano, 30, arrested in April for the slaying of a transient in Pacoima, was released from prison in 2021 after serving just eight years of a life sentence for a double murder because Gascón refused to transfer his case from juvenile to adult court.
Bibiano was 17 when he and two co-defendants were convicted in adult court in 2012 in the killing of two rival Pacoima gang members and the wounding of a third in 2009. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Also earlier this year, Gascón refused to file a motion to transfer the child assault case of Hannah Tubbs, a 26-year-old transgender woman, from juvenile court to adult court. Tubbs, who was just two weeks shy of her 18th birthday, was arrested after DNA evidence showed that she sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl in the woman’s bathroom of a Denny’s restaurant in Palmdale on New Year’s Day in 2014.
Tubbs was sentenced to two years at a juvenile facility after Gascón’s office declined to move the case to adult court. In an unrelated matter in May, the Kern County District Attorney’s Office charged Tubbs with murder for allegedly beating a fellow survivalist group member to death with a rock in 2019. She faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
After receiving widespread criticism for the Tubbs case, Gascón agreed to modify his policy of not charging juveniles as adults regardless of the offense.
“I want to reaffirm my commitment to the core values I expressed when I took office,” he said in a statement. “We do not believe that children should be tried as adults. We should treat kids like kids and give them every opportunity to grow and change. Like every responsible office, we learn as we go, take feedback from the community, and make necessary adjustments based on our experiences and the complex nature of this work. That is the responsible way to govern.”