Tuesday, November 14, 2006
High Court Reinstates Death Sentence in San Joaquin Valley Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A standard jury instruction once used in death penalty cases did not deprive a San Joaquin County defendant of the constitutional right to have all evidence of mitigating factors considered by the jury, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court the death sentence imposed on Fernando Belmontes in 1982 for killing 19-year-old Steacy McConnell.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, rejecting the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ determination that the trial judge deprived Belmontes of his rights by giving an instruction based on the then-language of Penal Code Sec. 190.3(k). Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, agreed with the Ninth Circuit panel’s decision that the instruction effectively told jurors to ignore evidence offered to show that Belmontes could lead a productive life in prison.
McConnell was beaten to death when she surprised Belmontes during the burglary of the victim’s home in the community of Victor, near Stockton. She was hit 15 to 20 times with a steel dumbbell.
At the penalty phase of the trial, Belmontes’ counsel offered witnesses to testify to the difficulty of the defendant’s childhood, his commitment to the California Youth Authority, and his conversion to Christianity. Two chaplains and two friends who had participated in Belmontes’ conversion testified that he was sincere, that he was involved in chapel activities while in CYA, and that if given the opportunity, he was likely to commit himself to such activities in prison.
The judge instructed the jury on the aggravating and mitigating factors applicable to capital cases in California, including the mitigating factor set out in Sec. 190.3(k). Jurors were told to consider “[a]ny other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime.”
The death sentence was unanimously affirmed by the California Supreme Court. A habeas corpus petition was denied by the district judge, but a divided Ninth Circuit panel granted habeas corpus relief.
The panel ruled that by focusing on “the gravity of the crime,” the instruction told jurors to disregard evidence of the defendant’s potential for good conduct in the future.
Last year, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, that the Ninth Circuit should have deferred to the California Supreme Court’s judgment that the instruction was proper.
Kennedy authored the opinion in that case, noting that the court had held the instruction to be constitutionally adequate in Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370 (1990).
The high court sent Belmontes’ case back to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration in light of Brown v. Payton. But the panel, again by a vote of 2 to 1, held that the defendant was entitled to a new penalty trial, noting that the “unreasonable application of controlling federal law” standard applied in Payton was inapplicable because Belmontes filed his federal petition before the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 became law.
Kennedy, however, said that even under more lenient pre-AEDPA standards, Belmontes had failed to show that the instruction—taken in the context of the other instructions and the closing arguments—deprived him of his right to have his mitigating evidence considered.
Jurors, he said, clearly understood that they could consider the evidence, but that it was up to them to determine whether it was a significant factor, as argued by the defense, or unworthy of much weight, as argued by the prosecution.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas joined in the opinion. Scalia, joined by Thomas, also wrote a brief separate concurrence arguing that states may limit the types of mitigating evidence that a jury can consider.
Stevens argued in dissent that the majority reached a “strange conclusion” based upon speculation.
“I simply cannot believe that the jurors took it upon themselves to consider testimony they were all but told they were forbidden from considering,” Stevens said.
The case is Ayers v. Belmontes, 05-493.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company