Death penalty upheld in murder case despite new evidence
California high court says inmate can bring a new petition to try to prove his innocence in a 1989 killing.
By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 25, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court upheld the death penalty Monday for a man whose professed innocence was bolstered late last year by the discovery of a gun buried in mud in a Modesto field.
Though unanimously rejecting Dennis Lawley's constitutional challenge of his conviction and death sentence, the state high court said he could once again try to prove his innocence by presenting a new petition based on the discovery of the gun.
Lawley was sentenced to death for hiring two men in 1989 to kill Kenneth Stewart, a recently released prisoner who had been robbing drug dealers. The triggerman, Brian Seabourn, has admitted shooting Stewart but said he did so on orders from the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang. Seabourn said he buried the murder weapon in a field near the scene of the crime.
Seabourn's statement contradicted weapons experts, who testified the bullets that killed Stewart came from a gun found in Lawley's home.
"Seabourn's testimony may point to Lawley's innocence if believed, but there is a substantial question whether it should be believed," Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote in Monday's ruling.
Scott F. Kauffman, Lawley's lawyer, received state funds last year to search the field where Seabourn said he buried the weapon nearly two decades ago. The gun Kauffman found in December matched Seabourn's description but was too old and rusted to be tested against the murder bullets.
The discovery also came too late to influence the court in Monday's decision.
Kauffman is expected to argue in a new petition that the weapons experts were wrong when they identified Lawley's gun as the murder weapon and that the discovery of another gun in a location pinpointed by Seabourn proves that he was telling the truth.
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