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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Teen Murderer Fails to Upend Death Sentence

PHOENIX (CN) - A man convicted in a brutal triple-murder failed to show that the court behind his death sentence failed to consider his history of drug abuse, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Robert Poyson was 19 and homeless when he met Leta Kagen in 1996. Kagen invited Poyson to stay at her trailer in Golden Valley, Ariz., which she also shared with her boyfriend Ronald Wear and her 15-year-old son Robert Delahunt.

Some months later she also opened up her home to Frank Anderson, 48, and his 14-year-old girlfriend Kimberly Lane. These guests then quickly formulated a plot to kill Kagen, Wear and Delahunt to steal Wear's truck, which they hoped to drive to Chicago where Anderson purported to have organized crime connections.

Court records show that Lane used the promise of sex to lure Delahunt into a small travel trailer on the property on Aug. 13, 1996. Anderson then slit Delahunt's neck and Poyson commenced a brutal 45-minute attack on the boy. After bashing Delahunt's head against the floor of the trailer, Poyson pounded the boy's head with his fists and a rock, then drove a bread knife through Delahunt's ear. Though the blade penetrated Delahunt's skull and exited through his nose, he remained conscious until Poyson bashed his head against the floor several more times.

Poyson then loaded a rifle, cut the telephone line to the trailer and entered Kagen and Wear's bedroom with Anderson.

Poyson first shot Kagen in the head, killing her instantly, and shot Wear through the mouth, managing only to shatter his teeth. The teen then beat Wear's head with the rifle, and Anderson knocked Wear down by hurling a cinderblock at his head. Poyson kicked Wear twice more in the head and bashed his skull with the cinderblock several more times.

He, Anderson and Lane were apprehended days later with Wear's truck in Illinois.

After a jury convicted Poyson of first-degree murder, conspiracy and armed robbery in March 1998, the Arizona trial court sentenced him to death.

After failing to secure postconviction relief and filing an unsuccessful federal habeas petition, Poyson appealed to the 9th Circuit.

A divided three-judge panel in San Francisco affirmed denial Friday.

"Poyson argues that the Arizona courts applied an unconstitutional causal nexus test to mitigating evidence of his mental health issues, traumatic childhood and substance abuse history, in violation of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to an individualized sentencing," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the majority. "He contends that the state courts improperly refused to consider this evidence in mitigation because he failed to establish a causal connection between the evidence and the murders."

Though the Arizona Supreme Court applied a causal nexus test to Poyson's evidence of mental health issues and a difficult childhood, the record "does not reveal whether the court considered the absence of a causal nexus as a permissible weighing mechanism ... or as an unconstitutional screening mechanism," the court found. "This ambiguity precludes us from granting habeas relief."

"We recognize the possibility that the Arizona Supreme Court applied an unconstitutional causal nexus test," Fisher added. "The record, however, contains no clear indication that the court did so. We may not presume a constitutional violation from an ambiguous record. We therefore hold that the district court properly denied habeas relief on Poyson's causal nexus claim."

The ruling also upholds the conclusion "that the mitigating evidence was not sufficiently substantial to call for leniency and affirmed the sentence of death."

Poyson furthermore did not establish that he was using drugs at the time of the murders, and his "claims of substantial impairment were also belied by his deliberate actions, including concocting a ruse to obtain bullets from a neighbor, testing the rifle to make sure it would work properly when needed, cutting the telephone line and concealing the crimes," Fisher wrote.

The court similarly rejected Poyson's claims that he suffered ineffective assistance when his lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Arizona courts were not given the opportunity to consider Poyson's "new facts in support of a claim presented to the state court, but also a fundamentally new theory of counsel's ineffectiveness," Fisher wrote.

Writing in dissent, Judge Sidney Thomas argued that the court must "look to the substance of the record itself to determine whether the state court unconstitutionally excluded relevant mitigating evidence from consideration at sentencing."

"Though the court used the language of 'weighing,' it plainly excluded the evidence of Poyson's antisocial personality disorder from its final analysis of mitigating and aggravating circumstances, solely because it lacked a causal nexus to the crime," Thomas wrote.

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