Death penalty case returns to high court

Los Angeles Times / November 2, 2009

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

The California Supreme Court affirmed a death sentence for Fernando Belmontes 20 years ago, but since then the case has bounced back and forth in the federal courts. Three times this decade, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Belmontes’ death sentence.

The case is the latest skirmish in the battle between California prosecutors and the Ninth Circuit over the death penalty - and it helps explains the oddity of capital punishment in California. While death sentences are common, executions are rare.

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

In 1981, Belmontes broke into the home of Steacy McConnell, 19, and beat her to death with a barbell.

In a 2-to-1 decision last year, Judges Stephen Reinhart and Richard Paez 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.’’

In two earlier rulings, Reinhart and Paez had overturned Belmontes’ death sentence on the grounds jurors may have thought they could not consider his conversion to Christianity in prison as a reason for leniency.

After each of the rulings overturning Belmontes’ sentence, California appealed to the Supreme Court. Twice before, the justices set aside the Ninth Circuit’s decision.