The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a death sentence appeal in a 24-year-old Orange County murder case that turned on jury instructions no longer used in California.
The justices agreed that the judge who presided at the trial of William Payton, convicted of the 1980 rape and stabbing of a Garden Grove woman, made a mistake when he allowed a prosecutor to tell the jury that it could not consider his behind-bars conversion to Christianity as a reason to spare his life.
The law allows juries to weigh any factor, such as remorse, as a reason for leniency.
But the justices sounded uncertain whether that mistake required a new sentencing hearing for Payton.
Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Payton was entitled to a new hearing, but state prosecutors urged the justices to overturn that ruling in the case of Brown vs. Payton.
-- David G. Savage