Ayers v. Belmontes

PETITIONER: Robert L. Ayers, Jr., Acting Warden
RESPONDENT: Fernando Belmontes
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 05-493
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 549 US 7 (2006)
GRANTED: May 01, 2006
ARGUED: Oct 03, 2006
DECIDED: Nov 13, 2006

Eric S. Multhaup - argued the cause for Respondent
Mark A. Johnson - argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1981, Fernando Belmontes Jr. was convicted of the first-degree murder of Steacy McConnell. During the sentencing phase of the trial, prosecutors sought the death penalty. Belmontes's defense lawyers argued for a life term in prison, and presented evidence of his history as a victim of abuse and poverty as well as his capacity for rehabilitation as mitigating factors. Before sentencing, the California trial judge instructed the jury to consider 11 possible mitigating factors, labeled (a) through (k), which jurors are required by California law to consider. The judge read factor (k), a catch-all factor, verbatim from the statute, telling jurors to consider "[a]ny other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime."

After the jury sentenced Belmontes to death, he appealed to the California Supreme Court, arguing that the jury had misunderstood the ambiguous factor (k) instruction to mean that they should not consider non-crime-related mitigating factors. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that jurors must consider all mitigating evidence offered by a defendant in a capital case, this would render the conviction unconstitutional. The California Supreme Court upheld the conviction, relying on Boyde v. California, in which the Supreme Court affirmed that factor (k) is constitutional unless there is a "reasonable likelihood" that jurors misunderstood it. Belmondes appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where his death sentence was finally overturned in 2003. The Circuit Court ruled that jurors had been confused by the factor (k) instruction, which caused them to fail to consider the mitigating evidence of Belmondes's capacity for rehabilitation.

After the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration, the Circuit Court reaffirmed its decision in 2005. The Circuit Court held that the verbatim or "unadorned" reading of the factor (k) instruction would have misled a reasonable juror. The Supreme Court agreed to consider the constitutional sufficiency of factor (k), as well as the possible retroactive applicability of the Circuit Court's holding.


1) Is an "unadorned" factor (k) instruction sufficient to inform a jury that it must consider any mitigating evidence that a defendant may present concerning his probability of rehabilitation and good behavior as a prisoner?

2) Is the Ninth Circuit's ruling that factor (k) is constitutionally inadequate a "new constitutional rule of criminal procedure," in which case it would not be applied retroactively to other defendants whose cases are already final?

Media for Ayers v. Belmontes

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 03, 2006 in Ayers v. Belmontes

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - November 13, 2006 in Ayers v. Belmontes

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has the opinion of the court in 05-493, Ayers v. Belmontes.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This is the third time the court has considered the constitutionality of the particular jury instruction formally used, is no longer used and the instruction formerly used by California in capital cases.

The case concerns the jury instruction known as “factor (k)”.

Now, the previous cases in this court addressing factor (k) were Boyde v. California and Brown v. Payton.

In Payton the limiting provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) applied and when the court reviewed the “factor (k)” instruction in Payton and referred to the limitations that AEDPA imposes on federal Habeas Corpus review.

The court in Payton rejected the challenge to the “factor (k)” instruction; in this case AEDPA does not apply.

Hence, it was argued that there should be a more rigorous review here and the factor (k) challenge should be upheld in this case.

It is true that AEDPA is not relevant for today’s case; still however we find much of the reasoning in Payton and in the earlier case Boyde v. California to be applicable here.

We find no constitutional error in giving the instruction.

In preparation for a burglary Belmontes armed himself with a steel dumbbell bar, when the victim saw him he crushed his skull with it killing her after multiple blows.

In the sentencing phase he is sought to convince the jury that his religious conversion before the crime tended to show he would lead a productive life in prison.

He now contains that this and other arguments about his chances for contributing to prison life could not be given full effect in light of the factor (k) instruction.

The instruction told the jury to consider, “any other circumstance which extends the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime.”

That was the instruction given to the jury for evaluating whether Belmontes should receive the death penalty.

The question is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the instruction to prevent consideration of Belmontes mitigating evidence.

As in the two previous cases we hold that the jury was not prevented from considering the argument that future good conduct would tend to make Belmontes less deserving of the death penalty.

Our interpretation of factor (k) is the one most consistent with the evidence presented to the jury; the party’s closing arguments and the other instruction provided by the Trial Court.

We concluded its improbably with the juror’s believe that the parties were engaging in an exercise and futility when respondent presented and both counsel later discussed this mitigating evidence in open court.

Arguments by the prosecution and the defense as well as the respondents own statement assume that the evidence was relevant.

Other instruction from the Trial Court also made it quite impossible that the jury would deem itself foreclosed from considering the respondent’s full case in mitigation.

The Judge told the jury to consider all of the evidence and all of the evidence of course included respondent’s forward looking mitigation case.

The short contrast between the courts instruction on aggravation that only enumerated factors could be considered and its instruction on mitigation, that the listed factors were merely examples further made it clear that the jury was to take a broad view of the mitigating evidence.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Thomas has joined.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer have joined.