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Gun found in field may free inmate

A man says he buried the firearm after committing the 1989 murder that another man was convicted of.

January 08, 2008|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

A rusted old gun found last month in a Modesto field has been identified as the same kind of weapon a hit man alleged he used to kill a man 19 years ago.

The identification by a state Department of Justice laboratory could help prove the innocence of Dennis Lawley, who has spent almost two decades on death row for the 1989 murder of Kenneth Lawton Stewart.

Citing the new findings about the gun, a lawyer for Lawley asked the California Supreme Court on Monday to assign a Superior Court judge to investigate and report back to the state high court. The court is scheduled to hear an argument in Lawley's appeal Wednesday.

Lawley, 64, was convicted after a forensic expert testified that another gun, which was found in Lawley's home, fired the bullet that killed Stewart.

Brian Seabourn, the admitted hit man, has long insisted that Lawley had nothing to do with the murder. Seabourn said he killed Stewart on orders from the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent prison gang. A letter from a gang leader was found in Seabourn's car but not turned over to Lawley's defense during the trial.

Seabourn said he shot Stewart with a .357 Smith & Wesson and then buried the weapon in the Modesto field. The hit man marked a Google map to show Lawley's lawyers where he had hidden the weapon.

Scott Kauffman, Lawley's attorney, said he needed the court to consider evidence of the gun to show that Seabourn was not lying.

"How can I possibly argue this case without the fact that established the credibility of a key witness in the case?" Kauffman said Monday.

Although the gun found in the field matches the description of the gun Seabourn said he buried, it was so rusted and degraded that authorities were unable to compare its markings with those on the bullet that killed the victim.

"It was impossible to determine the rifling characteristics," said Dean DeYoung, an assistant director for the state Department of Justice Central Valley laboratory.

Deputy Atty. Gen. David A. Eldridge said he remained "confident" that the court would uphold Lawley's death sentence. Eldridge said two different forensic analysts have testified that the gun found in Lawley's home -- a different make from the weapon Seabourn said he used -- fired the fatal bullet.

"There was ballistics testing done at trial, so there is nothing that Seabourn says that overcomes that," Eldridge said.

Stewart was killed four days after he was released from state prison. His body was dumped on a country road outside Modesto. He had been shot in the back of the head.

Lawley, a paranoid, delusional schizophrenic, represented himself at trial, saying that he was framed for Stewart's murder because he aspired to "go down in history" as the "Beast of Revelations."

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

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