The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the death penalty for a man who killed a 19-year-old Lodi woman for her $100 stereo.
It's the third time the country's highest court has heard the appeal of Fernando Belmontes, and the third time justices have overturned a decision in the case by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Belmontes has been behind bars since shortly after the March 15, 1981, bludgeoning of Steacy McConnell, a Lodi High School graduate who had recently moved into her own home in Victor.
Her parents were out of town celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary when they received the news Monday.
"Needless to say, we're thrilled. It's been a long time coming, 28 years now," Mary Ellen McConnell said. "We had been waiting for this to happen and justice is finally being served."
McConnell, a fifth-generation Lodi resident who was named for a relative, was in her first year of college in the spring of 1981. Her parents found her lifeless on the floor of her Sunrise Street home, where she had recently moved. She had been beaten during a burglary.
Monday's decision is apparently the end of Belmontes' appeals, which have been ongoing since he was sentenced to death in October 1982.
"We're pleased the Supreme Court has overturned the 9th Circuit for the third time in this case. This decision appears to resolve all outstanding issues in the state's favor," said Abraham Arredondo, spokesman for California Attorney General Jerry Brown.
Though the next step would be execution, it's unknown when that might happen. All executions in California are on hold, because of another case involving a Tokay High School victim.
Shortly before Michael Morales was to be executed in January 2005 for the 1983 rape and murder of Terri Winchell, a judge halted the process and ruled it unconstitutional. A revamp of the lethal injection process is still underway, as are legal challenges to that process.
In Monday's unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court disagreed with Ninth Circuit justices who had said Belmontes' attorney didn't give the jury enough positive information about the defendant while they were in the death penalty phase. Attorneys typically try to convince jurors that a defendant could be productive in prison and atone for their wrongs.
Instead, the Supreme Court noted that defense attorney John Schick worked carefully to keep the jurors from learning that Belmontes had been suspected in an execution-style killing two years before McConnell's murder.
In that case, prosecutors didn't have enough evidence, and Belmontes was convicted of accessory after the fact to voluntary manslaughter. However, while serving time in the California Youth Authority, he told a counselor he had shot the victim.
Schick successfully got that evidence excluded from trial.
During the penalty phase, Schick called nine witnesses who told the jury about Belmontes' past, including his abusive father, the childhood death of his sister and his small one-bedroom home. Other witnesses told about Belmontes' religious conversion while in custody, and the defendant himself took responsibility for his actions while asking that he be allowed to live behind bars.
However, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Schick should have had more witnesses and experts. The Supreme Court, however, noted that Schick walked a fine line and if he crossed it, would open the door to discussion of Belmontes' previous crime.
Justices also took exception to the Ninth Circuit's opinion that McConnell's death did not involve "needless suffering."
A pathologist determined that McConnell had been beaten in the head 15 to 20 times with a metal bar. The motive: burglary, with the thieves taking a stereo and then using the money for beer and drugs.
Belmontes was arrested within days of McConnell's murder, as were two other men. One pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and the other pleaded guilty to burglary and testified against the other two suspects.
Even Justice John Paul Stevens, who sided with the Ninth Circuit on a previous ruling but was overruled, didn't argue with Monday's decision.
Belmontes remains among the 685 inmates on death row in San Quentin.
No execution date is expected to be set until the lethal injection matter is resolved.