Chronic Drug Use and Childhood Abuse (and Crappy Lawyers) Wins Death Row Inmate New Trial Or Life in Prison

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The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has tossed out the death sentence of an Arizona death row inmate who was sentenced to die for the brutal 1981 murder of a man he targeted for being gay.

Inmate Steven Craig James, 53, who's been on death row for nearly 20 years, will either have his sentence commuted to life in prison, or get a new trial, for the November 17, 1981 beating death of Juan Maya, the three-judge panel ruled this morning.

In the court's published opinion, the judges ruled that James had ineffective counsel in the sentencing phase of his trial.

"We conclude that counsel's complete failure to investigate and present mitigating evidenceof James' troubled childhood, his mental illness, and his history of chronic drug abuse constituted deficient performance," Judge William A. Fletcher writes in the opinion. "We further conclude that this failure prejudiced James because it prevented the sentencing judge from learning that James had 'the kind of troubled history we have declared relevant to assessing a defendant's moral culpability."

Fletcher goes on to point out James' particularly rough childhood, which included exposure to violence and beatings by his adoptive parents.

See Fletcher's entire 62-page opinion below.

James is one of three people convicted of Maya's murder.The others were Lawrence Libberton, who's currently serving a life sentence for the murder, and 14-year-old Marty Norton, who testified against James and Libberton and was released from juvenile detention when he was 18.

According to court records, Maya made a homosexual pass at Norton. Norton then lured him to James and Libberton, who robbed and kidnapped him.

The three men then drove Maya to the desert about two hours west of Phoenix, where they pummeled him with rocks before shooting him and dumping his body in an abandoned mine shaft.

The court ordered the U.S. District Court of Arizona to give prosecutors time to retry James if they again wish to seek the death penalty. If prosecutors opt to not seek the death penalty, James will automatically be sentenced to life in prison.

Below is the appellate court's opinion.

9th Circuit Decision

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