The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has demonstrated once again why it simply cannot be trusted to decide capital cases fairly.
The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in the case of Ayers v. Belmontes in 2006 and remanded the case. Today, the Ninth Circuit overturned the death sentence again, finding that trial counsel had provided ineffective assistance in the penalty phase. The truth is that trial counsel had pulled off a major coup for the defendant in the penalty phase.
The jury had convicted Belmontes of the brutal murder of a young woman, Steacy McConnell of Victor, California, just to steal her stereo to sell it for beer money. This was not Belmontes' first killing. He had previously killed Jerry Howard in 1979, shooting him in the back of the head. Due to a lack of evidence in the prior case, he was only convicted of being an accessory to voluntary manslaughter, but he subsequently confessed to multiple people that he had killed Howard.
At the penalty trial, defense attorney John Schick convinced the trial judge to exclude the later evidence and admit only the fact that Belmontes had been convicted of being an accessory. However, that evidence could have been admitted to rebut the mitigating evidence that Belmontes later claimed his attorney should have introduced. U.S. District Judge David Levi rejected this claim seven years ago, stating, "Competent counsel would not have done anything to jeopardize the successful exclusion of the Herman execution style killing, which would have been the most powerful imaginable aggravating evidence."
The U.S. Court of Appeals has twice before overturned Belmontes' sentence on other grounds, but both times its decision was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals overturned the sentence again. Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Richard Paez, who vote to overturn all or nearly death sentences, disagreed with both the federal district judge and the California Supreme Court. Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain voted to uphold the sentence.
This case illustrates once again the single-minded determination of some judges to overturn every death sentence regardless of the circumstances.