Tuesday, March 25, 2008
S.C. Again Upholds Death Sentence for Self-Proclaimed ‘Beast’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously denied a habeas corpus petition by a Modesto man who unsuccessfully defended himself against charges of hiring two men to commit a 1989 murder, telling jurors he wanted to be known as the Beast described in the Book of Revelation.
Dennis Lawley asked the high court to throw out his conviction and sentence, claiming that Brian Keith Seabourn and Steven Curtis Mendonca killed Kenneth Stewart on behalf of the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent prison gang, and that he had nothing to do with the murder.
Seabourn, who was tried separately, and Mendonca, who pled guilty, were both convicted of second degree murder.
First Degree Murder
Jurors found Lawley guilty of first degree murder with a financial-gain special circumstance, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation of murder. Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Eugene Azevedo, since deceased, sentenced Lawley to death and his direct appeal was unanimously rejected in 2002.
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 the two men to kill Stewart to avenge a robbery and assault that occurred at the defendant’s cabin a few days earlier.
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 the 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 was found competent to stand trial and to waive counsel, but was not allowed to waive trial by jury.
In affirming the conviction and sentence on direct appeal, the high court upheld the competency finding and waiver of counsel. While Lawley’s appellate counsel had cited a four-page declaration implicating the Aryan Brotherhood and exonerating Lawley, signed by Seabourn in 1998, long after the trial, the high court said that issue could only be addressed on habeas corpus.
In resolving the innocence claim yesterday, the court said that Lawley failed to meet the high bar set on such claims in habeas corpus proceedings.
It is not sufficient that the evidence might have resulted in a different verdict had it been presented at trial, Justice Kathryn M. Wedegar explained, but must cast “fundamental doubt on the accuracy and reliability of the [trial] proceedings,” must “completely undermine the entire structure of the case upon which the prosecution is based,” and must not be such that “a reasonable jury could have rejected” it.
Seabourn’s testimony at the habeas corpus hearing, confirming his earlier claim that he was ordered to kill Stewart by the Aryan Brotherhood and that Lawley was uninvolved, as well as testimony by other inmates that Seabourn had told them years earlier that he killed Stewart for the gang, did not meet the standard, the justice said.
While a jury could have believed the testimony, it also might have “disbelieved Seabourn and the former Aryan Brotherhood members supporting him and instead credited the numerous witnesses at Lawley’s original trial who testified that Lawley had a grudge against Stewart, wanted him dead, and paid to have him killed,” Werdegar wrote. The jury might also have believed that Lawley and the Aryan Brotherhood were both involved, the justice said.
Seabourn’s testimony was imprecise as to the details of the supposed order to kill Stewart, Werdegar said, and there was evidence suggesting that Seabourn believed he could get help from Lawley’s counsel in getting his own sentence reduced if Lawley was cleared.
The case is In re Lawley, 08 S.O.S. 1673.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company