A convicted murderer's word is not enough to free a Modesto man from death row, the California Supreme Court said Monday in a written opinion.
That means 64-year-old Dennis Lawley will remain in San Quentin State Prison and his lawyer will seek further reviews of a 19-year-old case that involves recanted testimony, the specter of white supremacists and questions about a former district attorney who has died.
The high court reopened Lawley's case after co-conspirator Brian Seabourn claimed that he killed parolee Kenny Stewart to curry favor with the Aryan Brotherhood, a powerful prison gang. Stewart was shot twice in the head and left to die at the edge of Keyes Road on Jan. 22, 1989, a Super Bowl Sunday.
After presiding over 14 post-conviction hearings in Stanislaus County Superior Court in 2004, Judge John E. Griffin Jr. concluded that the star witness, Seabourn, could not be trusted. The high court's seven justices unanimously agreed.
"It is difficult to know where the lies end and the truth begins with Seabourn," the court said in a 25-page opinion.
The ruling was a bitter pill for Lawley's mother, who attended oral arguments at the high court in San Francisco in January. She thinks her son was convicted because he had a mental illness and insisted on representing himself, so his parents wouldn't have to foot the bill.
"I'm afraid to get my hopes up too high anymore," said Eva Noreen Lawley of Modesto. "They get dashed every time."
A jury convicted Lawley of hiring Seabourn to kill Stewart, then sentenced Lawley to death. A separate jury said Seabourn is guilty of second-degree murder. And Steven Curtis Mendonca, who was accused of helping Seabourn kill Stewart, pleaded no contest to second- degree murder.
After several years in prison, Seabourn claimed that Lawley, a paranoid schizophrenic who handled his own defense, was an innocent dupe.
In court four years ago, Seabourn claimed he killed Stewart at the behest of the prison gang, with no help from Lawley or Mendonca. He also acknowledged that he would lie if it served his purpose. And prosecutors argued that Seabourn crafted a tale to get attention and favors from Lawley's lawyer.
At trial nearly two decades ago, authorities argued that Stewart had beaten up Lawley, prompting a grudge that led to a murder-for-hire plot.
Lawley wanted to bring members of the Aryan Brotherhood to the witness stand, to testify that Seabourn killed Stewart to win points with the gang. That line of questioning was out of bounds, because Lawley had no way to connect Seabourn to the gang.
So Lawley argued that he was being framed because he long had wanted to be known as a man who emulated "the beast" in the New Testament book of Revelation. He also presented odd theories about homosexuals and warriors from outer space.
During post-conviction hearings, attorney Scott Kauffman of San Francisco argued that his client did not get a fair trial because then-District Attorney Jim Brazelton failed to turn over a letter from an Aryan Brotherhood leader that was found in Seabourn's car when Seabourn was arrested. Brazelton died in September.
Kauffman brought several other prisoners to court to back Seabourn's claims, but prosecutors pointed out inconsistencies in their testimony.
After reviewing the trial court's report, the justices said Lawley could have hired Seabourn to kill Stewart even if the gang also wanted Stewart dead. They said Seabourn could have concocted a story that was little more than an elaborate fiction.
The justices noted that Seabourn told Mendonca to make up stories to confuse investigators, wrote phony jailhouse notes to implicate others in Stewart's murder and admitted lying at his own trial, before he was convicted of second-degree murder.
Deputy Attorney General David Eldridge praised the ruling, adding that his office agreed to post-conviction hearings because Lawley was not able to call Seabourn as a witness in 1989.
"We believe they got it exactly right," Eldridge said.
Kauffman promised another appeal, based on a .357-caliber Smith & Wesson the defense attorney unearthed Dec. 13 in a field south of Robertson Road.
The defense attorney contends that the 1974-model gun is the murder weapon Seabourn buried in the field nearly two decades ago. The main piece of evidence against Lawley was a .357-caliber Ruger found in his cabin, which experts matched to bullets at the crime scene.
"Sooner or later, justice is going to be done for Dennis," Kauffman said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.