Appeals Court Overturns Death Sentence

Times Staff Writer

For the second time, a federal appeals court in San Francisco has overturned the death sentence of a man who has spent more than two decades on death row for beating a woman to death with an iron bar.

In recent years, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has toppled more than a dozen California death sentences, on some occasions drawing rebukes from the Supreme Court.

On Friday, the 9th Circuit overturned the death penalty for Fernando Belmontes, 44.

He was 19 when he and two other young men went to the home of Steacy McConnell in Victor, Calif., just east of Lodi, to steal her stereo in the aftermath of an argument over drugs, according to trial testimony. McConnell’s parents later found their daughter lying in a pool of blood.

In mitigation, the defense presented evidence that Belmontes had a family history of poverty and violence.

The 9th Circuit first blocked Belmontes’ execution in 2003, ruling that the trial judge had failed to instruct the jury to consider all mitigating evidence before deciding on execution.

On March 28, the Supreme Court vacated the decision and directed the court to reconsider its ruling in light of a decision a week earlier. That case concerned Orange County murderer William Payton, who raped and stabbed to death a Garden Grove woman in 1980. Payton had argued that his trial judge failed to instruct the jury to consider his behind-bars conversion to Christianity.

In Payton’s case, the high court noted that Congress in 1996 changed the law to say that federal judges should defer to state courts’ reasonable judgments in death penalty cases.

The 9th Circuit, however, ruled Friday that Belmontes’ case was different because he filed his challenge before the 1996 law was enacted. Consequently, the state court rulings were due less deference, the court said, and it was appropriate to overturn the death penalty because of the judge’s failure to issue the mitigation instruction.

The ruling was written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, an appointee of President Carter who is one of the court’s most consistent skeptics about the validity of death sentences. Judge Richard A. Paez, a Clinton appointee, joined Reinhardt’s opinion. Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, a Reagan appointee who consistently votes to uphold death sentences, issued a strong dissent, just as he did two years ago.

“The majority strains mightily -- and unpersuasively -- to perceive constitutional error in the comprehensive and perfectly proper jury instructions given by the state trial judge,” O’Scannlain wrote. “Because there simply is no such error, and the Supreme Court has expressly told us so on two separate occasions, I must respectfully dissent.”

Mill Valley attorney Eric Multhaup, who has represented Belmontes in appeals for 23 years, called the ruling “really good news.”

The California attorney general’s office had no immediate comment. The office almost always asks the Supreme Court to review a case when the 9th Circuit overturns a death sentence.