Chronic Drug Use and Childhood Abuse (and Crappy Lawyers) Wins Death Row Inmate New Trial Or Life in Prison

Categories: Death Row
jamesdeathrow.jpg
Arizona Department of Corrections
Steven James
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has tossed out the death sentence of an Arizona death row inmate who was sentenced to die for the brutal 1981 murder of a man he targeted for being gay.

Inmate Steven Craig James, 53, who's been on death row for nearly 20 years, will either have his sentence commuted to life in prison, or get a new trial, for the November 17, 1981 beating death of Juan Maya, the three-judge panel ruled this morning.

In the court's published opinion, the judges ruled that James had ineffective counsel in the sentencing phase of his trial.


"We conclude that counsel's complete failure to investigate and present mitigating evidenceof James' troubled childhood, his mental illness, and his history of chronic drug abuse constituted deficient performance," Judge William A. Fletcher writes in the opinion. "We further conclude that this failure prejudiced James because it prevented the sentencing judge from learning that James had 'the kind of troubled history we have declared relevant to assessing a defendant's moral culpability."

Fletcher goes on to point out James' particularly rough childhood, which included exposure to violence and beatings by his adoptive parents.

See Fletcher's entire 62-page opinion below.


James is one of three people convicted of Maya's murder.The others were Lawrence Libberton, who's currently serving a life sentence for the murder, and 14-year-old Marty Norton, who testified against James and Libberton and was released from juvenile detention when he was 18.

According to court records, Maya made a homosexual pass at Norton. Norton then lured him to James and Libberton, who robbed and kidnapped him.

The three men then drove Maya to the desert about two hours west of Phoenix, where they pummeled him with rocks before shooting him and dumping his body in an abandoned mine shaft.

The court ordered the U.S. District Court of Arizona to give prosecutors time to retry James if they again wish to seek the death penalty. If prosecutors opt to not seek the death penalty, James will automatically be sentenced to life in prison.

Below is the appellate court's opinion.

9th Circuit Decision


My Voice Nation Help
6 comments
seeking the truth
seeking the truth

Ineffective assistance of counsel is a serious issue in Arizona. The standards for lawyers are set so low -- no accountability -- and with the help of draconian mandatory minimum sentencing, these lawyers can collect obscene fees upfront, not have to do their jobs and bury their clients in prison forever. This is NOT how a justice system should work.

Meanwhile former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his henchwomen are  (on trial for abuse of power and possible disbarment) bragged about his 200,000 felony cases (since 2005) in his "fast and furious" race to convict. This SOP raises serious concerns and questions about fair justice in Arizona. There are thousands more which fall into the non-violent category that demand reopening and outside independent investigations.These cases are "rubber-stamped" through the Arizona Courts and dumped into the Federal Courts that will drag on for years at taxpayer expense, while all involved move on and up in their careers and/or retire with lucrative pensions.It's interesting to read the opinion about how this case was handled in the Arizona Courts. If the case had been properly handled we wouldn't be reading about it here. Now what has this legal mess cost the taxpayers? Arizona is sitting on a Pandora's Box they do not want the lid opened. i.e. Ray Krone, falsely accused wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned for almost two decades, then exonerated with private attorneys. Many of the same people are still in the prosecutors offices or higher -- are still there, perpetuating bungled cases and operating with the same SOP. Seeking fair justice is their job but a different precedent has been set that demands change. The last elections was about house-cleaning these offices. Now its like nothing ever happened until this case and the Buddhist Temple murder case hit the harsh light of day. Wasting taxpayer dollars on retrying these bungled cases must be ended, except to further expose the failures in Arizona's legal system in the courts.

Steve Tracy
Steve Tracy

I would comment here, but you already said it all - and said it very well.Thank you.

Wake up Arizona!
Wake up Arizona!

All should watch these videos (live and archived) this to see abuse of power by elected officials. Former County Attorney Andrew Thomas/Aubuchon/Alexander facing possible disbarment. The justice system and courts torn apart by prosecutors-gone-wild. There isn't anyone they wouldn't throw in prison which is why the death penalty must be ended in Arizona and nationwide.

Arizona Supreme Court -Presiding Disciplinary Judge > Video Pagehttp://www.azcourts.gov/pdj/Vi...

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