This story is the fifteenth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
There were plenty of reasons for concern over the verdict that Dennis Lawley was responsible for the murder of an ex-convict named Kenneth L. Stewart, whose body had been found on the side of a road in California’s Central Valley days after he was released from prison in 1989.
Lawley had twice been involuntarily committed in the past to mental institutions, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Yet Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Eugene M. Azevedo permitted Lawley to not only go on trial but represent himself, after a prosecution expert testified that Lawley had a “very sophisticated awareness” of the proceedings.
According to the trial record:
Lawley told jurors at the start of the 1990 proceedings that he aspired to go into history as a “Beast of Revelations.”
Lawley lived in a cabin that was the scene of significant drug dealing, according to prosecutors, in Butler’s Camp, CA., near where Stewart’s body was found. Prosecutors contended that Lawley hired two men, Brian Seabourn and Steven Mendonca, to avenge Stewart robbing Lawley.
The evidence to support that theory rested significantly on the word of one paid informer and former heroin addict, who testified that he heard Lawley arrange the murder; on a heroin addict who had been charged with helping Seabourn kidnap the victim, Stewart, but was given immunity in return for testifying that Lawley had planned the crime; on Mendonca’s girlfriend, a heroin addict who testified at the preliminary hearing that she heard Seabourn and Lawley plan the murder — though, by trial, she had recanted that testimony; and on another heroin user who testified that Lawley told her, before the murder, that he wanted to kill Stewart because the victim had robbed him.
More significant, Judge Azevedo later noted, was evidence from a criminologist that the bullets that killed Stewart matched a gun found at Lawley’s house.
Lawley wanted to call two prisoners to testify that Seabourn had told them, after he was arrested for his role in Stewart’s death, that the Aryan Brotherhood had arranged Stewart’s murder, and that an innocent man was in jail for the crime.
Judge Azevedo ruled that their testimony was not legally admissible, and the jury never heard from either witness.
At closing the prosecutor told the jury they had not heard any evidence that anyone, other than Lawley, had a reason to kill Stewart. The jury convicted Lawley and voted for the death sentence, which Azevedo imposed at sentencing.
Separately, Seabourn was convicted, and Mendonca pleaded guilty, to second-degree murder, charges that did not carry the death penalty.
Six years later, Lawley’s direct appeal was pending before the California Supreme Court when Seabourn filed a declaration stating that Lawley was innocent. In his declaration, Seabourn stated that the Aryan Brotherhood had ordered the murder, and Seabourn committed the crime with the help of the witness to whom prosecutors had granted immunity. Further, the declaration stated, the criminologist testimony was wrong; Seabourn said he had buried the gun he used to kill Stewart in a field.
Lawley’s appellate lawyer, Scott Kauffman, filed a post-conviction motion to overturn the verdict. The California Supreme Court in 2002 finally ruled, upholding the conviction on direct appeal. But the court soon after issued an order that required a hearing based both on Kauffman’s claim of actual innocence and on the defense contention that prosecutors improperly withheld evidence that could have helped establish innocence.
Among the defense witnesses were two Aryan Brotherhood members, who testified that the Brotherhood had been behind the killing. The prosecution presented expert testimony reiterating that a gun found at Lawley’s was the murder weapon.
The judge who presided over the hearing, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge John E. Griffin Jr., noted as he decided the case that there was “plenty” of evidence that the Aryan Brotherhood had arranged the murder, but noted that the evidence was clear that Lawley’s gun had been connected to the murder. He upheld the conviction.
Defense lawyer Kauffman appealed, and while the appeal was pending he turned up a similar gun as he conducted a search of the field where Seabourn said he had buried the weapon. The California Supreme Court refused to permit Kauffman to expand the evidence, and dismissed the petition for a new trial.
Kauffman filed a new petition in state court, while court-appointed attorneys filed a petition in federal court, challenging the conviction on everything from the weakness of the prosecution evidence to the fact that Lawley was permitted to represent himself even despite his “ludicrous, preposterous, and absurd” ambition to emulate the Beast in Revelations.
The petitions were pending in 2012 when Lawley, still on death row 22 years later, died of natural causes.