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The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 13 ruled, 5-4, that California’s special “catchall” instruction to juries in death penalty cases provides enough opportunity for jurors to consider all favorable evidence for the accused, and thereby reinstated the death penalty for a California man convicted of beating a woman to death 25 years ago. Ayers v. Belmontes, No. 05-493. In 1981, Fernando Belmontes beat 19-year-old Steacy McConnell to death while he was robbing her Victor, Calif., home, hitting her 15 to 20 times with a steel dumbbell. The trial judge told the jury to consider “[a]ny other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime,” an instruction known as “factor (k)” under California’s then-applicable statutory scheme. Belmontes was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death the following year, a verdict upheld by state courts and a federal judge. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals however, twice overturned the death sentence, holding that the trial judge had failed to tell jurors that they must consider the prospect that Belmontes could live a productive life behind bars based on his good behavior during an earlier commitment to a California correctional facility for youth. The justices reversed. Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that the 9th Circuit was wrong to conclude that jurors might have failed to take all of the evidence into account before settling on a sentence of death. The judge’s instruction, Kennedy said, went far enough to ensure that the jury would not only consider favorable evidence about the crime itself, but also evidence that the individual would not be dangerous in the future if his life were spared. Kennedy said that jurors had been presented with the mitigating evidence that, defense lawyers hoped, would steer them away from a death sentence. “It was mistaken . . . to find a ‘reasonable probability’ that the jury did not consider respondent’s future potential,” Kennedy wrote. His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said that the majority opinion had reached a “strange conclusion” based upon speculation. “I simply cannot believe that the jurors took it upon themselves to consider testimony they were all but told they were forbidden from considering,” Stevens said. His opinion was joined by justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

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