A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned the death sentence of a man who has spent 21 years on death row for beating a woman to death with an iron bar, ruling that the judge at his trial violated his constitutional rights by not fully instructing the jury to consider all possible mitigating evidence before passing sentence.
The ruling was the 12th by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the last year and a half that either reversed a death sentence or upheld the decision of a federal trial judge who had overturned a death sentence in a California case. Two of those rulings have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The 9th Circuit has upheld four California death sentences in the same period.
Tuesday's 2-1 decision was written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Jimmy Carter appointee who is one of the court's most consistent skeptics about the validity of death sentences. He was jointed by Judge Richard A. Paez, a Clinton appointee. Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, a Ronald Reagan appointee who consistently votes to uphold death sentences, issued a strong dissent.
The 42-year-old defendant, Fernando Belmontes Jr., was 19 when he and two other young men went to the home of Steacy McConnell in Victor, just east of Lodi in 1981, intending to steal her stereo in the aftermath of an argument over drugs, according to testimony in his trial.
One of Belmontes' accomplices, who said he was the lookout at the robbery and made a plea bargain with prosecutors, testified that Belmontes entered the home, not expecting to find McConnell. He emerged shortly afterward spattered with blood and saying that he had needed to "take out a witness."
McConnell's parents found their daughter lying in a pool of blood. An autopsy determined that her skull had been shattered by 15 to 20 blows.
After finding Belmontes guilty, jurors heard extensive testimony about Belmontes' background before deliberating six hours and voting in favor of a death sentence.
Belmontes' conviction and his death sentence were upheld by the California Supreme Court and a federal district court judge.
The 9th Circuit upheld the conviction but toppled the death sentence in a lengthy opinion.
The key issue for the court involved the instructions that the judge at Belmontes' trial gave to jurors about how to weigh the evidence on whether they should spare his life.
That evidence included testimony that Belmontes had a record of violence, which included slugging his wife when she was four months pregnant, pleading guilty to being an accessory after the fact to voluntary manslaughter and taking a gun from another man who had offered to sell it to him.
The jurors also heard that Belmontes, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade, had a family history of poverty and violence.
His trial lawyer, who asked the jury to sentence Belmontes to life in prison without parole, rather than death, also presented what the appeals court called substantial evidence that Belmontes could lead a constructive life if he was kept behind bars.
During four months in custody at a California Youth Authority facility the year before the murder, Belmontes worked his way up to a position of leadership in the camp's fire crew. A youth authority chaplain testified that he should not be executed because he was a salvageable person with "a lot of extenuating circumstances in his life."
Several witnesses testified that Belmontes became a Christian while incarcerated by the CYA then failed to maintain his religious commitment after being released.
Belmontes told the jury that he did not think his difficult childhood excused his role in McConnell's murder.
He told jurors that he could not withstand the pressures of life outside prison but asked them to give him "an opportunity to achieve goals and try to better" himself.
When the testimony was over, the trial judge gave the jurors a set of standard instructions telling them to consider as mitigating evidence the defendant's age, criminal history and any "other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime."
But the judge declined to give the jury what the appeals court declared to be the most important part of another instruction requested by the defense.
That instruction would have told the jurors that "you should not limit your consideration of mitigating circumstances to these specific factors. You may also consider any other circumstances ... as reasons for not imposing the death sentence."
The importance of that catchall instruction, which is listed in California's death penalty law, cannot be overstated, Reinhardt wrote.
A reasonable probability exists that the judge's refusal to give the instruction affected the jury's decision, Reinhardt held.
"To pass constitutional muster, the trial judge's instructions must convey to the jury" that they are free "to consider all relevant mitigating evidence," he wrote.
In his dissent, O'Scannlain said, "the majority strains mightily -- and unpersuasively -- to perceive constitutional error in the comprehensive and perfectly proper jury instructions given by the state trial judge."
"There is no reason to think that the jury would have thought it was foreclosed from using" the testimony that it heard, O'Scannlain wrote.
Belmontes' history of "violent, antisocial behavior, not an ambiguous jury instruction," put him on death row, O'Scannlain concluded.
The California attorney general's office had no immediate comment.
Eric Multhaup, an attorney from Mill Valley who has represented Belmontes for 21 years on appeal, said: "I am very happy that he will get a second chance at a life verdict."