WASHINGTON — For the third time, the Supreme Court on Monday reversed the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and restored a death sentence for a California murderer who bludgeoned a young woman in 1981 to steal a stereo from her house.
The justices, in a unanimous, unsigned opinion, rejected the notion that Fernando Belmontes should be spared because his lawyer had failed him by not presenting mitigating evidence about Belmontes' childhood.
"It is hard to imagine . . . additional facts about Belmontes' difficult childhood outweighing the facts of [Steacy] McConnell's murder," the justices said. "We agree with the state court's characterization of the murder" as one of " 'extraordinary brutality' and simply cannot comprehend the assertion by the Court of Appeals that this case did not involve 'needless suffering.' "
Belmontes broke into McConnell's home in the small Central California town of Victor, near Stockton, and struck her in the head 15 or 20 times with a steel barbell, crushing her skull. She put up "a desperate struggle for [her] life," the court said, but died a few hours after the beating. Belmontes and two accomplices sold her stereo for $100 and used the money to buy beer and drugs.
In 1982 a jury convicted Belmontes and condemned him to die, and the California Supreme Court affirmed his sentence in 1988. Since then, the case has been on appeal in the federal courts.
Under the Habeas Corpus Act, state defendants can sue in a federal court and argue that they are being punished in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Three times in this decade, the 9th Circuit Court ruled in favor of Belmontes and set aside his death sentence. In the first two decisions, the appeals court said jurors may have thought they could not weigh evidence about Belmontes' conversion to Christianity as a reason for sparing his life.
State prosecutors sent appeals to Washington after each of these rulings. In the first case, the high court set aside the 9th Circuit ruling in a brief order and said the decision should be reconsidered. The second time, the justices issued a written ruling reversing the appeals court.
When the case returned to the 9th Circuit, Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Richard Paez, both of Los Angeles, wrote a new opinion and said the lawyer for Belmontes failed to "humanize" him and give jurors a basis for sparing his life.
On Monday, the justices disagreed again. In a 14-page opinion, they concluded it was "fanciful" to believe jurors would have spared Belmontes had they heard more about his childhood.
The case illustrates the continuing dispute over the death penalty between state prosecutors and federal judges in California. The state has 685 inmates on death row, by far the most in the nation. Yet, executions are rare. Since capital punishment was restored in 1977, the state has carried out 13 executions. Many of the cases have remained tied up in federal litigation for decades.
Mark A. Johnson, a deputy attorney general in Sacramento, said the Belmontes litigation may be nearing an end. "This decision finally resolves all the outstanding issues," he said. "But then again, you can never say 'never' with these capital cases."