Justices to say whether murderer's conversion should have been emphasized in jury sentencing instructions
In 1981, William Payton went to a California home where he'd previously rented a room, begging for a place to stay. The woman there let him sleep on the couch. A few hours later, while she was still sleeping, Payton stabbed her 12 times, then raped her as she lay dying. Then he attacked the woman's housemate, stabbing her 40 times, and her 10-year-old son, stabbing him 23 times. Both of these victims, however, survived.
In other words, Payton's crimes are pretty heinous. And a jury found him guilty on all counts.
But God is gracious to the greatest of sinners. In prison, Payton converted to Christianity, and became zealous in his faith. He even led several prison Bible studies.
At Payton's sentencing hearing, eight witnesses told of Payton's conversion, faith, and his changed character. But the prosecutor in the case told the jury to disregard the conversion as a "mitigating" factor—it didn't count. The jury agreed, and sentenced Payton to death. Last October, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the prosecutor's comment was a mistake—and one big enough to overturn the sentence (as well as the California Supreme Court's 1992 affirmation of Payton's death penalty).
"We have determined that there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury accepted the prosecutor's erroneous statement of the law rather than the defense counsel's and that it therefore failed to consider the only evidence offered in mitigation of the death penalty," Judge Richard Paez wrote for the 6-5 majority.
The dissenters in the case not only questioned the wisdom of overturning the sentence, but also wondered about the "mitigating factors" in Payton's ...1
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