Belmontes v. Woodford, 071503 FED9, 01-99018

Docket Nº:01-99018
Party Name:Belmontes v. Woodford
Case Date:July 15, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

F ERNANDO BELMONTES, JR., Petitioner-Appellant,


JEANNE S. WOODFORD, Warden, for the California State Prison at San Quentin, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 01-99018

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

July 15, 2003

Argued and Submitted December 5, 2002—Pasadena, California

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California David F. Levi, District Judge, Presiding, D.C. No. CV-89-00736-DFL

Before: Stephen Reinhardt, Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain and Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge Reinhardt; Partial Concurrence and Partial Dissent by Judge O’Scannlain


Eric S. Multhaup, Mill Valley, California; Christopher H. Wing, Sacramento, California, for the petitioner-appellant.

Mark A. Johnson, Deputy Attorney General, Sacramento, California, for the respondent-appellee.


REINHARDT, Circuit Judge:

In this pre-AEDPA death penalty case, Petitioner Fernando Belmontes, Jr., appeals the district court’s denial of his petition for writ of habeas corpus. Because the jury was not instructed that it must consider Belmontes’ principal mitigation evidence, which tended to show that he would adapt well to prison and would likely become a constructive member of society if incarcerated for life without possibility of parole, and because there is a reasonable probability that the instructional error affected the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty on Belmontes, we grant the petition with respect to the penalty phase. We reject, however, those claims that seek relief from the judgment of conviction and the finding of special circumstances. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s decision in part, reverse in part, and remand with instructions to issue a writ vacating the death sentence.


A. The Crime, Its Investigation, and Pretrial Proceedings

On the morning of Sunday, March 15, 1981, 19-year-old Steacy McConnell telephoned her parents and stated that she was afraid because several people, including codefendant Domingo Vasquez, had threatened her. Several hours later, McConnell’s parents arrived at her residence in Victor, California, and found her lying unconscious in a pool of blood. She died shortly thereafter from cerebral hemorrhaging caused by fifteen to twenty blows to her head with an iron bar. Her skull was cracked, and she had defensive injuries on her hands, arms, and feet. The house was ransacked and her stereo was missing.

On the Tuesday preceding the murder, several people, including Vasquez and another codefendant, Robert “Bobby” Bolanos, partied at McConnell’s house. Although Bolanos left the residence early Wednesday morning, the party continued until Friday, when Vasquez stole a quantity of “black beauties”— amphetamine pills — from McConnell. Upon discovering the theft, McConnell threw Vasquez and his friends out of the house. The group subsequently discussed their dislike of McConnell.

Police investigation of the individuals who had been present at the party extended to Vasquez, and ultimately to Bolanos, who drove a distinctive black Chevy. The police recognized Bolanos’ car as matching the description of the car that had been seen in McConnell’s driveway at the time of the murder. The police impounded the car and interrogated Bolanos. Bolanos eventually admitted that he had been involved in the events that led to McConnell’s death; he identified Vasquez and Petitioner Fernando Belmontes, Jr., who had not been at the party but who had been visiting him over the weekend of the murder, as his coadventurers. On the strength of Bolanos’ statement, the police obtained a warrant and headed South to Ontario, where they arrested Belmontes at his brother’s home. Belmontes was nineteen at the time.

Belmontes, Bolanos, and Vasquez were each charged with first degree murder and special circumstances. However, Bolanos soon arranged a deal with the prosecution in which he agreed to testify against Vasquez and Belmontes in exchange for a guilty plea to second degree burglary and immunity on the murder charge. At Vasquez’s preliminary hearing, Bolanos fingered Belmontes as the main assailant. After the preliminary hearing, the trial judge dismissed the special circumstances charge against Vasquez, and he pled guilty to second degree murder. That left Belmontes, who alone proceeded to trial.

B. The Guilt Phase

Bolanos was the principal witness for the state. He testified that on the morning of Sunday, March 15, he and Belmontes drove to Vasquez’s residence to hang out. When they arrived, Vasquez was on the phone with McConnell. When Vasquez hung up the phone, he informed them that McConnell would not be home during the latter part of the day. The three were short of cash, and they agreed to burglarize McConnell’s residence, steal her stereo, and “clean house.” Vasquez’s wife, Karrie Lynn, testified that as the men departed through the kitchen, Belmontes grabbed from the counter an iron dumbbell bar, which she used for rolling tortillas.

Bolanos told the jury that the three men drove to McConnell’s house in Bolanos’ vintage, black car and parked a short distance from the house. According to Bolanos, Belmontes stated that he would approach the house alone, on foot, carrying the metal bar in case he needed to force entry, so that he could gather McConnell’s valuables and place them near the door to facilitate a quick getaway, and that the other two should wait for about five minutes and then bring the car around to McConnell’s house.

Bolanos testified that the events unfolded as follows: Belmontes left his wristwatch with him, concealed the bar under his jacket, and walked to McConell’s residence. Bolanos and Vasquez waited about five minutes, then drove up and backed into McConnell’s driveway. Vasquez tried to open the trunk but could not find the right key. Bolanos got out of the vehicle to assist Vasquez. He heard repeated knocking or banging noises coming from within the house. Bolanos unlocked the trunk and got back inside the car, while Vasquez walked to the front door to assist Belmontes. Shortly thereafter, Belmontes and Vasquez emerged from the back door of the house carrying stereo components. Belmontes was sprinkled with blood on his face, pants, and shoes. Vasquez “looked like he had seen a ghost.” Belmontes stated that he had had to “take out a witness” because she was home. He explained that when McConnell heard Vasquez and Bolanos drive up, she looked away from him and he seized the opportunity to hit her with the bar approximately fifteen times.

Lucy Flores, McConnell’s neighbor, testified that on the morning of the murder she watched Bolanos’ Chevy as it backed into McConnell’s driveway. She observed a man get out of the passenger side and try to unlock the trunk. He appeared to be having difficulty, whereupon the driver got out of the car and unlocked it. The driver got back in the car, while the passenger walked towards the front of McConnell’s house and met a third man. She did not see where the third man had come from. The two men headed toward the front of McConnell’s house. A short while later, she saw them exit McConnell’s house from the back door, carrying stereo equipment, which they loaded in the trunk before getting in the car and driving away.

Bolanos testified that, after leaving McConnell’s house, the three drove to the nearby city of Galt, where they intended to fence the stereo. En route, Belmontes wiped blood from the metal bar and his shoes. Belmontes threw the bar out of the window as they crossed a bridge over the Mokelumne river.1 They went to the home of Manuel Vasquez, Domingo’s brother, where Belmontes changed his pants. The three contacted Raul Barron, who met them at the home of Irma Vasquez, Domingo’s sister, and purchased McConnell’s stereo components from them. Barron later testified that he paid $100 for the stereo to a man wearing a baseball cap (Belmontes), who did most of the talking.

Teresa Cobarrubio, Bolanos’ girlfriend, testified that Bolanos gave her fifteen dollars from the proceeds of the sale of the stereo. Acting scared, he informed her that he, Belmontes, and Vasquez had burglarized McConnell’s residence. The following day, Bolanos and Cobarrubio read a newspaper account of McConnell’s murder, and Bolanos related further details of the crime. He told Cobarrubio that he had remained in the car, and that Belmontes had exited the house with blood on his clothes and had stated that he “had to take a witness out.”

Bolanos testified that on Monday, March 16, Vasquez called him to advise that he had been questioned by police and did not want to “take the rap” for the murder. Bolanos and Belmontes went to Vasquez’s house, where the three conferred. Karrie Lynn Vasquez testified that from the kitchen she overheard Belmontes say that he entered McConnell’s house alone and hit her multiple times with the bar before Vasquez joined him in the house.

Barbara Murillo, Belmontes’ girlfriend, testified that after the meeting, Belmontes telephoned her and told her that he was “in trouble.” He reported that he had gotten into an argument with McConnell at her house, become angry and hit her, and that she fell and “went to sleep,” although he “didn’t mean for her to go to sleep.”

Detective Holman, the lead investigator, testified that Belmontes furnished three tape-recorded statements shortly after his arrest. In the first statement, he denied any involvement in the crime. In the second, he admitted the burglary but denied hitting McConnell. In the third statement, he admitted hitting McConnell, but insisted that he only hit her once, and then only at Vasquezs direction. He stated that the single blow he delivered caused McConnell to fall...

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