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Christian convert denied reversal of death sentence

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The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence of a murderer who sought to have it overturned because the jury was not properly instructed about weighing his jailhouse conversion to Christianity in their decision.

In one of three California cases decided yesterday, the justices voted 5-3 to back a California Supreme Court ruling that upheld the death sentence of William Payton, who used a butcher knife to kill Pamela Montgomery in 1980.

The majority opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that even though the prosecutor wrongly told the jury it could not consider Payton's newfound Christianity and good prison behavior when considering the death penalty, that did constitute a reversible error.

"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," wrote Justice Kennedy, who was joined in the majority by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.

The ruling reversed a federal appeals court's decision to grant a new trial.

The prosecutor at Payton's original trial in state court told jurors they could not consider anything that had happened after the crime, such as his religious awakening while in prison during the trial. The judge failed to remind the jury that, in fact, the prosecutor was wrong under California law.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter dissented. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who returned to the bench Monday after five months off for treatment of thyroid cancer, took no part.

The high court also ruled yesterday in two other cases involving police search warrants and local government regulation of radio towers. All nine justices agreed that two Simi Valley, Calif., police officers acted lawfully in handcuffing and questioning a California woman while executing a legal search warrant.

In a majority opinion written by the chief justice, the court overturned a lower court ruling that found the two guilty of violating Iris Mena's Fourth Amendment rights.

Police broke down her door in 1998 and cuffed her while they searched a compound suspected of serving as a safe house for gang members and illegal immigrants. She was kept cuffed while police rounded up guns, ammunition and baseball bats with gang writing on them. Police released Miss Mena afterward, determining she was a legal resident and not a gang member.

Miss Mena won a $60,000 settlement in lower courts, but the Supreme Court overturned it, saying police were justified in their actions. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote "the use of handcuffs minimizes the risk of harm to both the officers and the occupants."

The justices also ruled unanimously to block a Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., man's attempt to collect damages and attorney fees from the town after it refused him a permit to build a radio tower for commercial purposes.

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