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California killer's case back before Supreme Court

Fernando Belmontes was sentenced to death in 1982 for murdering a 19-year-old woman. The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned his sentence three times.

November 02, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is considering, for the third time, the case of a California murderer who was sentenced to die in 1982 for the brutal killing of a young woman.

Twenty years ago, the California Supreme Court affirmed a death sentence for Fernando Belmontes, but since then his case has bounced back and forth in the federal courts. Three times in this decade, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned his death sentence as flawed.

The case is the latest skirmish in the long-running war between California prosecutors and the 9th Circuit over the death penalty -- and it helps explain the oddity of capital punishment in California. Although death sentences are common, executions are rare.

California has by far the largest death row in the nation, with 685 inmates. Yet only 13 condemned prisoners have been executed since capital punishment was restored in 1977, far fewer than the 38 death row inmates who have died of natural causes.

By contrast, Texas has carried out 441 executions during the same period and has 358 inmates on death row. Virginia has executed 103 people during that time and has 18 inmates on death row. Among them is John Allen Muhammad, who is scheduled to die Nov. 10 for one of the deadly sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area in fall 2002.

The stark differences in execution rates reflect the contrasting approaches of the regional U.S. courts of appeals.

In the South, the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., and the 5th Circuit in New Orleans are dominated by conservative judges who are inclined to reject appeals and to uphold death sentences.

The 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, has a core of liberal judges who say it is their duty to carefully scrutinize capital cases.

"There is no greater burden that falls on a member of the judiciary than to sit in judgment on whether an individual shall live or die, and no greater responsibility than to make certain that every capital defendant receives the full protection to which he is entitled to under our Constitution and our laws," said Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles, defending his decision to again set aside Belmontes' death sentence.

In a 2-1 decision last year, Reinhardt and Judge Richard Paez, also of Los Angeles, ruled that Belmontes' lawyer had provided "ineffective assistance of counsel" because he failed to tell the jury of the "traumas that Belmontes faced as a youth." Given this evidence, the jury might have spared his life, they said.

Eight conservative judges of the 9th Circuit dissented and said the full appeals court should reconsider the ruling. However, it takes a majority vote of the circuit's 27 judges to rehear such a case.

In 1981, Belmontes broke into the home of Steacy McConnell, 19, and beat her to death with a barbell. He stole a stereo and sold it for $100.

In two earlier rulings, Reinhardt and Paez had overturned Belmontes' death sentence on the grounds that jurors may have thought they could not consider his conversion to Christianity in prison as a reason for leniency. Police and prosecutors said Belmontes had shot and killed a man two years earlier, but that was kept from the jury.

After each of the rulings overturning his death sentence, the California attorney general appealed to the Supreme Court. Twice before, the justices set aside the 9th Circuit's decision.

The state's lawyers have been waiting for several weeks, anticipating the high court would act soon on their latest appeal. But they are used to waiting.

"A great many people are frustrated by the pace at which these cases are resolved," said Ronald Matthias, a California assistant attorney general who oversees litigation on the death penalty. He noted that other Western states "face the same logjam."

The 9th Circuit hears cases from nine states, several of which have large numbers of prisoners on death row. They include Arizona (with 122 prisoners), Nevada (79), Oregon (35) and Idaho (18). None of these Western states has carried out an execution in the last two years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

In Arizona, "we've had just one execution since 2000," said Steve Wilson, a spokesman for the state attorney general.

In December 2006, a federal judge put executions on hold in California while the state revised its protocol for lethal injections.

Critics of the death penalty cite high costs and seemingly endless litigation as a good reason for abolishing capital punishment. Last year, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice called the state's death penalty system "broken" and "dysfunctional," and estimated it costs the state $137 million a year.

The justices met Friday to discuss pending appeals, including the Belmontes case, and may act on the case as soon as today.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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