Condemned killer loses 28-year bid to avoid execution

A death row inmate's 28-year quest to have his sentence commuted was dashed Wednesday when a panel of judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave in to the Supreme Court's third ruling that Fernando Belmontes doesn't deserve to be spared execution.

The battle over whether Belmontes' sentence was fair, given his lawyer's failure to present mitigating evidence about the murderer's childhood, ran over a decade among the federal judges and incited internal discord on the Western appeals court.

The latest high-court reversal was in November, when the justices voted unanimously to reinstate Belmontes' death sentence for the 1981 killing of a Central California woman. Belmontes bludgeoned to death 19-year-old Steacy McConnell at her home in Victor, northeast of Stockton, to steal her stereo, which he sold for $100 to buy drugs.

"In light of that opinion, we are compelled to affirm the District Court's order denying the writ of habeas corpus," the 9th Circuit panel ruled in a one-paragraph decision, signaling surrender.

The 2-1 panel majority that three times vacated Belmontes' sentence consisted of Judges Stephen Reinhardt, appointed to the court by President Carter, and Richard A. Paez, named to the court by President Clinton. Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, an appointee of President Reagan, dissented from most of the panel rulings in Belmontes' favor.

Judge Consuelo M. Callahan twice penned dissenting opinions over the full court's vote against reconsidering the judgment of Reinhardt and Paez, saying the panel majority "improperly adhered to its own perspective rather than listen to the Supreme Court."

carol.williams@latimes.com

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