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The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a jury which sentenced a convicted killer to death had properly taken into account his religious conversion, even though a prosecutor incorrectly argued it was irrelevant. In a 5-3 ruling, justices reversed a lower court ordering a new trial for William Payton. While a California prosecutor was wrong to make that assertion, the errors did not make a difference in sentencing because jurors had heard testimony from other witnesses attesting to Payton’s religious conversion, they said. “Testimony about a religious conversion spanning one year and nine months may well have been considered altogether insignificant in light of the brutality of the crimes, the prior offenses, and a proclivity for committing violent acts against women,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. He also noted that justices only can overturn the death sentence if it was unreasonable given all the evidence presented. “In context, it was not unreasonable for the state court to conclude that the jury believed Payton’s evidence was neither credible nor sufficient to outweigh the aggravating factors, not that it was not evidence at all,” Kennedy wrote. In a dissent, Justice David H. Souter argued Payton deserved a new trial because of the prosecutor’s misstatements. “The trial judge utterly failed to correct these repeated misstatements or in any other way to honor his duty to give the jury an accurate definition of legitimate mitigation,” Souter wrote. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Payton’s is one of the longest-running death penalty cases. He was convicted and sentenced in the 1980 rape and stabbing death of Pamela Montgomery of Garden Grove, Calif. Currently, there are more than 600 inmates on death row in California, although the state has executed only 10 people since 1992 due to protracted legal challenges and concerns about fairness of the system. His lawyers have said that about 70 cases involve death row inmates who claim that mitigating factors after a crime — such as a religious conversion — were not properly considered because of inadequate jury instructions. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in consideration of the case, which was heard in November while he was being treated for thyroid cancer. Rehnquist returned to the bench Monday after a five-month absence because of the illness. He was back again Tuesday for two more arguments. The 80-year-old chief justice’s voice remained hoarse and he moved slowly, but he appeared fully engaged and seemed to enjoy being back at work. Rehnquist read an opinion, asked half-a-dozen questions during the first argument, smiled at his colleagues’ quips and made a couple of his own. He provoked laughter with a comment to an attorney representing famed Los Angeles lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who is named in a lawsuit the court is considering. As the attorney began describing a hypothetical scenario in which Cochran was running for mayor of San Francisco, Rehnquist remarked, “I thought he lived in L.A.” The ruling was in Brown v. Payton, 03-1039. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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