PHOENIX (AP) — An appeals court has thrown out the death sentence of an Arizona man convicted in the 1981 murder of another man who was targeted for being gay, ordering that he get a new sentencing trial or be given life in prison.
Steven Craig James, 53, has been on death row for nearly 30 years in the Nov. 17, 1981, beating death of Juan Maya.
Although a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called Maya's killing an appalling hate crime in which he was robbed taunted, beaten, shot and thrown into a mine shaft, they threw out James' death sentence.
In an opinion filed Wednesday, the judges wrote that James' attorney at the time was ineffective for his "complete failure" to investigate and present the sentencing judge with evidence of James' troubled childhood, bipolar disorder and history of chronic drug abuse — so-called mitigating factors that could have made him eligible for a sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty.
In James' case, the 9th Circuit called the mitigating factors "powerful," writing that James' birth parents were "utterly unfit" and exposed him to violence, drug abuse, poverty and sexual predators before he was given up for adoption. His adoptive father "administered disciplinary beatings," and James later became a habitual drug user and high school drop-out, the court wrote.
The panel ordered the U.S. District Court of Arizona to give state prosecutors a reasonable amount of time to resentence James. If the state chooses not to seek a new death sentence against James, he will automatically be given life in prison under Arizona law, the court wrote.
A prosecutor and James' current defense attorneys did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday.
James was one of three people convicted of killing Maya. The others were Lawrence Libberton and 14-year-old Marty Norton.
Court records say Maya came on to Norton, who lured him to James and Lawrence. The three robbed Maya, then drove him two hours west of Phoenix to a desert area near Salome, all the while talking about killing him.
Records show Maya was brutally beaten with rocks and was shot before being dumped in an abandoned mine shaft. James later led police to the body after he was arrested in the killing.
Norton testified against James and Libberton and pleaded guilty in juvenile court to first-degree murder, kidnapping, armed robbery and credit card fraud. He was held in a juvenile detention facility until he was released at the age of 18.
Lawrence was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges and sentenced to death, but his sentence was thrown out in 2009 by the 9th Circuit. The court wrote that Lawrence's attorney at the time was ineffective for failing to show James' greater culpability in Maya's murder and evidence of Libberton's abusive childhood.
Libberton is now serving a sentence of life in prison.