Friday, January 25, 2002
State High Court Upholds Death Sentence of Would-Be ‘Beast of Revelations’ Who Defended Himself at Trial
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously affirmed the death sentence of a Modesto man who defended himself against charges of hiring two men to commit a 1989 murder.
“Although [Dennis Lawley’s] crime is not the most heinous ever to be subjected to the ultimate penalty, we cannot say as a matter of law that his punishment is grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his offense,” Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote.
“The jury reasonably might have believed the sorry events in this case never would have occurred but for defendant’s desire for vengeance, his furnishing of the murder weapon, and his provision of a material incentive to the killer,” the justice said.
Jurors found Lawley guilty of first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation of murder, with a financial-gain special circumstance, in the death of Kenneth Stewart. The late Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Eugene Azevedo sentenced Lawley to death.
Stewart was shot and killed on Jan. 22, 1989, just days after he was released from prison. He had been serving a parole violation sentence following a term for burglary.
Prosecutors said Lawley hired Brian Keith Seabourn and Steven Curtis Mendonca to kill Stewart to avenge a robbery and assault that occurred at the defendant’s cabin a few days earlier. Seabourn and Mendonca were convicted of second degree murder and are now serving prison terms.
Lawley had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and told jurors he wanted to be known as the Beast described in the Book of Revelations—a statement that he had been making since adolescence, according to testimony.
He told a Stanislaus Superior Court judge he wanted to fire his retained lawyer because of a disagreement over whether to waive jury—Lawley said he feared that he would be convicted if lesbians or transvestites were on the panel, and that he considered all women who wear pants transvestites.
Lawley’s attorney suggested that he was incompetent to stand trial, and a psychologist was appointed to examine him. The clinician reported at the ensuing hearing that Lawley was paranoid and delusional, but was not presently suffering from schizophrenia or any other mental condition that would prevent him from assisting counsel or representing himself.
The judge found Lawley competent to stand trial and allowed him to represent himself, although he was not allowed to waive trial by jury.
The high court yesterday upheld both the competency finding and the waiver of counsel.
The evidence at the competency hearing, Werdegar said, showed that Lawley had “a sophisticated understanding” of the charges and of court procedure and that “the content of his thinking contained nothing bizarre or grossly illogical.”
As for his waiver of counsel, the justice said, it met both requirements established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Faretta v. California and subsequent cases—the defendant was mentally competent and the waiver was made knowingly and intelligently, with a full understanding of the potential consequences.
Werdegar also rejected the argument that Azevedo abused his discretion in excluding testimony that supposedly would have established an alternative theory of the murder—that Stewart had run afoul of the Aryan Brotherhood, and that the violent racist prison gang had ordered the killing.
The testimony would have been hearsay, Werdegar said, based on statements allegedly made by Seabourn—who would likely have pled the Fifth Amendment if called to testify. The trial judge acted within his discretion in ruling that while the fact that Seabourn accepted a contract to kill Stewart was within the declaration-against-penal-interest exception to the hearsay rule, the identification of the person or persons who put out the contract was not, Werdegar said.
Lawley’s appellate lawyer, Scott Kauffman of San Francisco, claimed at oral argument that Seabourn signed a four-page declaration implicating the Aryan Brotherhood and exonerating Lawley in 1998. But any evidence purporting to clear Lawley, outside of the trial record, can only be considered in habeas corpus proceedings, Werdegar said.
The defendant did prevail on one issue, the court accepting a concession by the attorney general that conspiracy to murder is not a capital crime. That conclusion has no effect on the death sentence for murder itself.
Werdegar’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Ming Chin, and Carlos Moreno.
Justices Marvin Baxter and Janice Rogers Brown each concurred separately.
Baxter questioned whether the attorney general’s “pragmatic” concession with respect to the penalty for conspiracy establishes good law, while Brown said the majority had defined the declaration-against-penal-interest exception too narrowly but agreed that the Aryan Brotherhood testimony was properly excluded as unreliable.
The case is People v. Lawley, 02 S.O.S. 309.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company