A mentally ill inmate on California’s death row who has been trying to overturn his conviction has died of natural causes, 23 years after his conviction, state authorities said.
Dennis Lawley, 69, was found unresponsive in his single cell at San Quentin State Prison and pronounced dead at 4:20 p.m. Sunday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.
Lawley’s case sparked headlines in 2008 when a search of a Modesto field uncovered a handgun that corroborated potentially exonerating evidence.
Lawley was convicted of the 1989 contract killing of Kenneth Lawton Stewart, a convicted felon who had been robbing drug dealers.
The prosecution argued that Lawley had hired Brian Seabourn, another former inmate, to kill Stewart after Stewart robbed and beat Lawley at his Modesto cabin. Two criminalists said the bullet that killed the victim matched a revolver found in Lawley’s home, a .357-caliber Ruger.
Seabourn, who was tried separately, denied involvement but was convicted of second-degree murder. Seabourn later admitted that he killed the victim, but insisted the order came from the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent prison gang. Seabourn said he used a .357-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver in the crime and buried it in a Modesto field.
In 2007, a lawyer for Lawley received state funds to search the field where Seabourn said he hid his weapon. A rusty, corroded .357-caliber Smith & Wesson was discovered, but the revolver was so degraded authorities were unable to compare its barrel markings with those on the bullet that killed the victim.
The discovery came too late to affect an appeal that was then pending before the California Supreme Court, but the state high court said in March 2008 that Lawley could ask the court to consider the gun in another appeal.
Lawley filed the other appeal the following month, but the court still has not ruled on it. State officials argued that more than one gun might have been used in the crime.
“California has executed an innocent man on the 23-year layaway plan,” Lawley’s attorney, Scott F. Kauffman, said Tuesday after learning of his client’s death.
Even though he was diagnosed as a delusional paranoid schizophrenic, Lawley was permitted to represent himself at trial. He told jurors that he was framed for the murder because he aspired to “go down in history” as the “Beast of [the Book of] Revelations.”
Since California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, the state has executed 13 inmates. Another 56 have died of natural causes, 19 have committed suicide and six others have died of other causes, primarily killings by other inmates. There are 722 offenders left on California’s death row.