High court lets stand death penalty for converted murderer

WASHINGTON (BP)--The U.S. Supreme Court rejected March 22 a convicted murderer’s attempt to reverse a death sentence imposed by a jury that was improperly instructed about his post-crime conversion to Christianity.

The high court voted 5-3 to overturn a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that would have reversed a jury decision of capital punishment for William Payton.

The case involved a death sentence for Payton, who raped and murdered Pamela Montgomery and attempted to kill two other people in 1980 in California. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the prosecutor incorrectly told the jury it could not consider Payton’s conversion and subsequent good behavior while incarcerated as mitigating evidence. The judge did not explicitly correct the prosecutor’s assertions.

Witnesses testified Payton had made a genuine commitment to God, participated in Bible study classes and a prison ministry, and had a positive influence on other prisoners during the preceding 21 months of incarceration.

The Supreme Court found the prosecutor’s mistaken comments to the jury did not require a new sentence.

“Testimony about a religious conversion spanning one year and ninth 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,” Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. “It was not unreasonable for the state court to determine that the jury most likely believed that the evidence in mitigation ... was simply too insubstantial to overcome the arguments for imposing” capital punishment.

Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer joined Kennedy in the court’s opinion. Associate Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has been battling thyroid cancer, did not participate in the decision.

The case is Brown v. Payton.


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