Court hears killer's appeal

SAN FRANCISCO -- A defense attorney waved his fist in the air Wednesday as he stood before the California Supreme Court's seven justices, proclaiming that his client, a paranoid schizophrenic from Modesto who has been on death row for 18 years, is innocent after all.

Next came a prosecutor who took a low-key approach, making all of his points before his allotted half-hour before the justices elapsed, suggesting that a key witness for the defense fabricated a tale about an innocent man being wrongly convicted and sentenced to die.

Now, people who are interested in the case of Dennis Lawley, a man who said he was framed for murder because he wanted to emulate "the beast" in the New Testament book of Revelation, must wait for the court to issue a written opinion.

"I wish I could have heard more," said his mother, Eva Noreen Lawley of Modesto, who came to court with a dozen relatives. She said she believes her son is innocent, but was found guilty in 1989 because he insisted upon representing himself at trial.

The Lawley case has a long and tortured history and Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar suggested that the latest hearing before the high court, on a petition for relief brought by an attorney who specializes in capital cases, may not be the last.

That's because defense attorney Scott Kauffman found a .357-caliber Smith & Wesson in a field that is part of the Tuolumne River Regional Park in southwest Modesto on Dec. 13.

Kauffman thinks the gun may be a long-lost murder weapon that could exonerate Lawley, but his discovery came too late to become part of the pending appeal, which involves recanted testimony, the specter of white supremacists and questions about the conduct of the former district attorney, who since has died.

The defense attorney took Werdeger's suggestion -- that the panel of judges would hear another appeal from Lawley, based on the discovery of the gun -- as a sign that Lawley would not be exonerated during this round of litigation.

"I don't think they're going to do anything for us, but I gave them hell," Kauffman said after the arguments were over.

A new witness

The high court affirmed Lawley's death sentence in 2002, but the justices granted another review based on a subsequent petition brought by Kauffman, sending the case back to Stanislaus County Superior Court for further hearings that were held from December 2003 to August 2004.

The key witness during those hearings was convicted murderer Brian Seabourn, who said he killed Kenny Stewart, firing two shots into the back of his head on Super Bowl Sunday in 1989.

Seabourn said Lawley, who was convicted of hiring Seabourn to kill Stewart, had nothing to do with the shooting. Prosecutors said Lawley hired Seabourn to kill Stewart because Stewart beat Lawley up.

Seabourn said Stephen Curtis Mendonca, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is an inmate at a prison for mentally ill offenders, is innocent, too.

Seabourn said he killed Stewart because he wanted to climb in the ranks of the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang that deals drugs and espouses white supremacist beliefs. He said he viewed gang leaders as white gods, but became disillusioned years later, after a gang member tried to kill him.

Kauffman said the discovery of a 30-year-old gun -- in the field where Seabourn said he buried it -- shows that Seabourn is telling the truth about Stewart's death.

He also argued that prosecutors and investigators knew that Seabourn had connections to the prison gang. They even found a letter from a gang leader in Seabourn's car when Seabourn was arrested, he said, but never disclosed that information to Lawley.

"The jury did not hear the words 'Aryan Brotherhood' in this case," Kauffman said. "This is a massive miscarriage of justice."

David Eldridge, deputy attorney general, said Seabourn's testimony, even coupled with the discovery of a gun that could have been Seabourn's, is not enough to exonerate Lawley.

The prosecutor said the Smith & Wesson found in the field is of no consequence, because two forensic experts agree that a .357-caliber Ruger found in Lawley's home fired the bullets that killed Stewart.

Eldridge said Seabourn cannot be trusted because he lied under oath in his own trial and admitted in court that he would lie if it served his purpose.

He pointed to letters Seabourn wrote to Kauffman in which Seabourn seems to be fishing for information, so he can concoct a winning story to tell on Lawley's behalf.

He also pointed to letters Seabourn wrote to Lawley's parents in which Seabourn promises to testify for Lawley if they pay him $35 a month.

"Mr. Seabourn is an opportunist," Eldridge said.

The gun Kauffman found in the field last month was tested by the state Department of Justice crime lab in Ripon. It is from 1974 or 1975, but too degraded to allow a tool-mark analysis to determine if the Smith & Wesson could have fired the fatal bullets.

Even if such tests were possible, they might be inconclusive, because the Smith & Wesson and the Ruger come from the same class, leaving similar tool marks when fired.

Justices have three options

The justices could uphold Lawley's guilty verdict and death sentence, order a new trial or set Lawley free. The court is expected to issue a written opinion on the case within 90 days.

Trial court judges have sentenced 672 people to death since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978. The justices have affirmed 285 death sentences and ordered new trials for 15 offenders, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

As the legal process unfolds, Lawley, 64, sits in a cell at San Quentin State Prison and awaits his fate.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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