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Lowenthal defense of death-row inmate results in federal court resentencing ruling

Gary Lowenthal
October 31, 2011

Professor Emeritus Gary Lowenthal recently won a case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out the death sentence of a man who was convicted in a 1981 murder, sending the case back to state court for resentencing.

Lowenthal leads the defense team of Steven Craig James, who has been on death row in Arizona for nearly 30 years.

James, 53, and two other defendants were convicted of beating to death Juan Maya.

“We’re not challenging the fact that it was a culpable murder,” Lowenthal said. “My client was seriously mentally ill at the time of the murder, and much of his tragic life’s story was never presented.”

In court, Lowenthal demonstrated the impact of events that happened to James in the months before the crime as mitigating factors that should have been presented at the original sentencing in 1982.

“It connected his life’s story to the crime in a powerful way,” Lowenthal said, “showing that it was a crime of circumstance.”

In a decision handed down on Oct. 12, the 9th Circuit panel unanimously deemed these factors as a “powerful” influence in the sentencing decision, calling James’ parents “utterly unfit” by exposing James to violence, drug abuse, poverty and sexual predators before giving him up for adoption.

After becoming James’ lawyer in 1993, Lowenthal said the state courts had ruled they would not speculate if James had an adequate trial lawyer because the issue had not been raised in a timely manner. In 2006, James was finally granted the right to litigate this issue.

In 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled James’ trial lawyer was incompetent, but the lower court said the new mitigation information would not have changed the sentence. Lowenthal then took the case to the 9th Circuit in March 2011.

The question then became, “Was there a reasonable probability that the mitigation evidence we presented, going back 50 years in time, would have made a difference?” Lowenthal said.

The State of Arizona was granted by the 9th Circuit panel a reasonable amount of time to resentence James. The Attorney General’s office has plans to file for an en banc review of the panel’s decision.

Lowenthal said a final decision may be returned by fall 2012.