Appeals court reaffirms decision to block Az inmate’s death sentence
A federal appeals court Friday reaffirmed its decision to overturn the death sentence of convicted murderer Steven James, saying lower courts were wrong not to consider claims that his lawyers were ineffective.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned James’ sentence once before, saying his lawyer failed to investigate James’ history of drug abuse and mental illness. But the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ordered the circuit court to reconsider its James decision in light of a separate high court ruling that year on a similar claim.
A three-judge panel of the circuit court said Friday said the Supreme Court ruling had no effect and that its decision to overturn James’ death sentence should stand.
If the state chooses not to resentence James for the 32-year-old murder, his sentence would automatically be converted to life in prison.
“I’m elated for my client,” said Gary Lowenthal, James’ attorney. He could not say Friday if James had heard the ruling.
The Arizona attorney general’s office declined to comment Friday.
James was convicted of murder and kidnapping for the 1981 killing of Juan Maya in Salome, Ariz.
Court documents said Maya was at James’ trailer with James, Martin Norton and Lawrence Libberton. Norton, then 14, told police multiple versions of a story in which Maya tried to kiss him or followed him to James’ home, according to court documents.
Once at the trailer, James and Libberton beat Maya up, then forced him at gunpoint into James’ car. They drove him to a remote, abandoned mine where James and Libberton each shot Maya in the head once. Then, worried he was not dead, the three defendants “mashed” Maya’s head with large rocks before throwing him down an abandoned mine shaft, according to documents.
James was convicted in 1982 and, with Libberton, sentenced to be executed. Libberton’s death sentence was later vacated.
In multiple appeals, James raised several issues, including the claim that his counsel was ineffective, but that argument was barred by state and federal courts on procedural grounds.
But the circuit court said that claim should have been heard, saying James’ sentencing attorney “failed to conduct even the most basic investigation” of a social history that included drug use, mental illness and “dramatic, instant and unpredictable mood swings.” Had those issues been raised, James probably would not have received a death sentence, the court said in 2012.
The state appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that the circuit court should not have reviewed James’ sentence in the first place because of a high court ruling that instructs federal courts to defer to state court decisions. The Supreme Court took the case, vacated the circuit court’s decision and ordered the lower court to reconsider the case.
On reconsidering, the circuit judges stood firm. It said the state court made clear that it had based its decisions on procedural reasons in James’ case and not on a review of the merits of the case. The circuit court panel said the high court ruling only requires it to give the higher standard of deference to state decisions based on the merits of a proceeding, which was not the case with James.
“Williams (the Supreme Court ruling) instructs us to give state courts the benefit of the doubt when the basis for their holdings is unclear,” said the opinion, written by Circuit Judge William Fletcher. “It does not require us to ignore a state court’s explicit explanation of its own decision.”
Lowenthal said the state could ask the full circuit court to rehear the panel’s ruling.
The state could also try to resentence James, said the court, which instructed the district court to “grant the state a reasonable amount of time” to prepare a resentencing. If it does not, the sentence would convert to life in prison.