High court reinstates death in Calif. case

November 14, 2006|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, reversing the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, restored a death sentence yesterday for a California man who robbed and brutally killed a young woman 25 years ago.

The justices, in a 5-4 decision, concluded that jurors who decided the fate of Fernando Belmontes had weighed all the evidence - good and bad - before condemning him to die for the murder of 19-year old Steacy McConnell in Victor, Calif.

Yesterday's decision, the first of this term, was the latest of many over the past decade in which the conservative majority clashed with the liberal-leaning appeals court based in San Francisco.

In this case, the sides differed over how jurors would have understood the instructions they were given in California death penalty cases in the early 1980s.

Those instructions were changed in 1983 to tell jurors they could consider "any other aspect of the defendant's character or record" that might call for life in prison, rather than death, for a convicted murderer.

Before that, jurors were given a long list of factors to consider, including whether the defendant had a mental defect or disturbance, was dominated by another person or was intoxicated at the time of the crime. Finally, jurors were told they could consider "any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime."

That phrase caused considerable confusion. Some judges said it allowed jurors to consider all factors that call for leniency, such as the defendant's conversion to Christianity while in prison. Others said it barred jurors from considering evidence that did not involve the crime.

Belmontes had a long criminal record in March 1981 when he went to McConnell's home, armed with the steel bar of a dumbbell. He clubbed the young woman over the head as many as 20 times and broke her skull. He emerged from the house covered with blood and carrying her stereo. He and his accomplices later sold it for $100.

Belmontes was caught and put on trial in San Joaquin County and convicted of burglary and murder. During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors described Belmontes' violent crimes, including a recent beating of his pregnant girlfriend. A defense lawyer described Belmontes' poor and troubled childhood and his embrace of Christianity while behind bars.

After hearing its instructions, the jury unanimously sentenced Belmontes to die. The California courts upheld his sentence, as did a federal judge in Sacramento.

But when his appeal eventually reached the 9th Circuit in 2003, his death sentence was reversed in a 2-1 ruling.

Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Richard Paez concluded there was a "reasonable probability" that jurors would have spared Belmontes had they been free to consider evidence of his "future conduct" behind bars. Reinhardt believed the instructions incorrectly told jurors to look back only at the crime and not at evidence that showed Belmontes "would adapt well to prison."

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which overturned Reinhardt's opinion in a brief order last year. The high court said the case should be reconsidered in light of its ruling in another case that year, in which it had reversed the 9th Circuit and restored a death sentence for an Orange County murderer who had become a Christian in jail.

Undaunted, Reinhardt and Paez reaffirmed their original ruling in favor of Belmontes.

Lockyer appealed again to the Supreme Court. This time, the justices heard arguments in the case and issued a 16-page ruling reversing the 9th Circuit.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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