Calif. Death Penalty Law at Issue

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Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court said Monday that it would decide whether California’s death penalty law wrongly prevented jurors from considering a killer’s conversion to Christianity as a reason for sparing his life.

The outcome could determine the fate of several death row inmates whose convictions came in the early 1980s.

On May 26, 1980, William C. Payton went to a Garden Grove home where he had previously been a boarder and asked to sleep on the couch. A few hours later, he raped and murdered a woman who was living there. He then repeatedly stabbed the woman who owned the home, as well as her 10-year-old son. They survived to testify against him. Payton was convicted, and a jury sentenced him to death.


The Supreme Court has said that defendants have a right to tell jurors anything about themselves that may call for mercy. All Payton’s lawyer could say was that after Payton was behind bars, the inmate had been “born again” and had led fellow prisoners in Bible study classes. His pastor, his mother and several others testified about the sincerity of his religious conversion.

Under California law, the judge instructed the jurors on what they could consider when weighing whether to impose the death penalty or a life sentence without parole. The final instruction said jurors could consider “any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of his crime.”

In his appeals, Payton argued that this instruction focused the jurors’ attention on his crime, not on his religious conversion in prison.

The California Supreme Court and a federal judge dismissed his claim. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 6-5 decision, sided with Payton and set aside his death sentence.

State prosecutors appealed, saying the 9th Circuit’s ruling was wrong and could upset other death sentences.

“This has already affected one case, and it has a potential effect on several others,” said A. Natalia Cortina, a state deputy attorney general in San Diego.


In the mid-1980s, however, the state revised the jury instruction to make clear that “any sympathetic” fact could be weighed as a reason to choose a life sentence, rather than death.

Nonetheless, the high court will hear the case of Goughnour vs. Payton to decide whether the earlier jury instruction was unreasonable and unconstitutional.