For the third time – third time! — the Supreme Court has reversed the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and restored the death sentence imposed on Fernando Belmontes, who in 1981 broke into the home of Steacy McConnell, beat her to death with a dumbbell, and stole her stereo. He then sold the stereo for beer and drug money. The history of the case reads like a parody of the death-penalty debate, with Belmontes’s lawyers attempting to excuse his behavior with claims of a difficult childhood, or mitigate his punishment with claims of ineffective counsel and a conversion to Christianity. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this latest round of appeals is the contention by the 9th Circuit that the case did not involve “needless suffering.”
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, was appropriately disdainful of this claim:
We agree with the state court’s characterization of the murder, and simply cannot comprehend the assertion by the Court of Appeals that this case did not involve “needless suffering.” The jury saw autopsy photographs showing Steacy McConnell’s mangled head, her skull crushed by 15 to 20 blows from a steel dumbbell bar the jury found to have been wielded by Belmontes. McConnell’s corpse showed numerous “defensive bruises and contusions on . . . [her] hands, arms, and feet,” . . . which “plainly evidenced a desperate struggle for life at [Belmontes’] hands.” Belmontes left McConnell to die, but officers found her still fighting for her life before ultimately succumbing to the injuries caused by the blows from Belmontes. The jury also heard that this savage murder was committed solely to prevent interference with a burglary that netted Belmontes $100 he used to buy beer and drugs for the night. McConnell suffered, and it was clearly needless.
Sadly, needless suffering has been and continues to be inflicted on Steacy McConnell’s friends and loved ones, who have endured this farce for 28 years and must now watch as the case is yet again returned to the California courts and, yes, the inevitable rehearing in the 9th Circuit.
— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.