(CN) - Reversing the 9th Circuit for a third time, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday restored the death sentence for a man who bludgeoned a woman to death in 1981 with a steel dumbbell bar during a burglary.
The justices unanimously rejected the 9th Circuit's finding that Fernandos Belmontes' lawyer had insufficiently presented mitigating factors during sentencing.
Belmontes' attorney, John Schick, had proceeded cautiously during the sentencing phase, because he wanted to prevent the prosecution from introducing evidence that Belmontes had committed a prior murder.
The evidence against him included eyewitness testimony, confessions, and Belmontes' possession of the murder weapon and ammunition used to kill the victim.
Schick successfully kept the prosecution from presenting the evidence, and the jury learned only that Belmontes had been convicted of being an accessory to voluntary manslaughter - nothing more.
But Schick had to tread carefully, as the prosecution could introduce the damaging evidence if Schick merely "opened the door," the Supreme Court noted.
"In one instance, Schick elicited testimony that Belmontes was not a violent person," the ruling states. "The State objected and, out of the earshot of the jury, argued that it should be able to rebut the testimony with the (prior) murder evidence."
Schick backed off, and the trial court struck the testimony.
The 9th Circuit called the mitigation case "cursory" and said Schick should have offered more evidence to "humanize" Belmontes, including evidence spotlighting his difficult childhood and his "positive attributes."
But the justices said Schick did just that, putting nine witnesses on the stand who testified about Belmontes' "terrible" childhood with his alcoholic and abusive father, his religious conversion in jail and his contributions to a youth rehab program.
"The sentencing jury was thus 'well acquainted' with Belmontes' background and potential humanizing features," the court wrote. "Additional evidence on these points would have offered an insignificant benefit, if any at all."
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote separately to express his view that, though the mitigation case "probably did not affect the outcome of the trial," the 9th Circuit had correctly set aside the death penalty.
He remained convinced that the jurors thought they had to ignore the mitigating evidence.
"The evidence trial counsel might have presented hardly matters ... because in my view the conscientious jurors' mistaken understanding of the law would have prevented them from giving that additional evidence any weight at all, let alone controlling weight," Stevens wrote.
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