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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Arizona Inmate Loses Shot to Leave Death Row

WASHINGTON (CN) - A death row inmate convicted in the 1981 murder of a gay man who allegedly flirted with his friend does not deserve habeas relief , the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The case involves the death of Juan Maya, who was severely beaten, driven to an isolated desert area, and then killed with a combination of gunfire and rocks. Maya's assailants then threw his body down an abandoned mine shaft.

Steven James, Lawrence Libberton and Martin Norton were each convicted of Maya's murder in separate proceedings in Arizona state court.

Norton, who was 14 years old at the time of the murder, agreed to testify against James and Libberton and to plead guilty in juvenile court to first-degree murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, and credit card fraud. In exchange for his testimony and guilty plea, Norton was committed to juvenile detention until he turned 18, with no subsequent incarceration.

Libberton was convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, robbery, and theft, and sentenced to death.

James was convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping, and sentenced to death.

In 2009, the 9th Circuit granted Libberton habeas relief with respect to his death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court declined then to take up the case in 2010.

James was slated for similar relief after the 9th Circuit ruled in late 2011 that the state court improperly failed to address the merits of his ineffective assistance of counsel claim at the penalty phase.

The U.S. Supreme Court summarily vacated the decision Monday, however, in light of its holding last month in Johnson v. Williams.

That decision denied habeas relief to a woman named Tara Sheneva Williams who was convicted of murder only after the trial judge dismissed a contrary juror.

Williams notes that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 that "sharply limits the circumstances in which a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner whose claim was 'adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings.'"

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