Court rejects ‘laundry list' of appeals in burning-death murder case
WASHINGTON - An Arizona death-row inmate convicted of dousing a man with gasoline and setting him on fire cannot present new evidence regarding his disadvantaged upbringing, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
Eldon Schurz was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die for burning a man to death in Phoenix in 1989. Schurz argued on appeal that his attorneys did not present enough evidence of his childhood abuse, drug addiction and other factors that could have led to a lesser sentence.
But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals flatly rejected his claims Thursday, saying a "laundry list" of similar evidence had been presented at sentencing and that any new evidence would have minimal effect.
Schurz's current attorney, Jennifer Garcia, criticized the ruling, saying the court did not address the fact that his first lawyers were unable to present all the evidence about his background because their requests for funds to pay mental health experts were turned down by the trial court.
Garcia said she would ask for a review of the ruling by the full circuit court.
The Arizona attorney general's office declined to comment on the case Thursday.
The case began on Dec. 2, 1989, when Schurz and two friends stole beer from a group of people who were drinking next to a Phoenix motel, according to court documents. When Schurz and his friends returned for more later that night, they overheard Jonathan Bahe telling the others that he would have stopped Schurz if he had been there earlier.
The remarks "set Schurz off," the court said, and he began repeatedly punching Bahe, who managed to escape into an enclosed area between a chain-link fence and a brick wall. Schurz found a jug of gasoline, threw some on Bahe and then lit a puddle of the gas with a lighter. He splashed the burning puddle toward Bahe, who "burst into flames," according to the court ruling.
"He wouldn't give me the money or the beer, so I burned him," Schurz later told investigators, according to court documents.
Schurz was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to death after the judge determined that the murder was "especially heinous and depraved." Repeated appeals of his conviction and sentence have been unsuccessful.
In his latest appeal, Schurz argued ineffective assistance, saying his lawyer failed to present enough evidence about his drug abuse and childhood troubles.
The appellate panel was not swayed, noting that Schurz "wanted the judge who sentenced him to hear a laundry list of mitigating evidence, and his attorney dutifully presented it." The sentencing court heard evidence about Schurz's childhood, in which his father abandoned him and his mother beat him, and how he became an alcoholic and a heroin addict shortly after his grandmother died, the court said.
Garcia said that was not enough evidence.
"It was a scant amount of evidence about childhood abuse in some parts of his life," she said.
The unheard evidence includes claims that Schurz's development suffered because his mother drank while pregnant with him, that family members had undiagnosed mental illnesses, that he may have been sexually abused by a priest and that he may have been exposed to neurotoxins from pesticides, among other points.
But much of the remaining evidence is "minimally relevant at best," said Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, in the opinion he wrote for the panel.