A federal appeals court in San Francisco today overturned the death penalty of a Bakersfield man who was convicted of shooting his pregnant wife with a shotgun as she sat in their pickup truck on a Tulare County road in 1981.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of Michael Hamilton, 59, saying that there was “overwhelming evidence” of his guilt in the murder of Gwendolyn Hamilton.

But the court said that Hamilton didn’t receive a fair penalty phase of trial because his defense lawyer failed to present evidence of what the court called “a horrific childhood” and of Hamilton’s mental illness.

As a result, the court said, the defense lawyer “provided the jury with no reason to show mercy.”

The court said Hamilton’s “extraordinarily abusive childhood” included his father’s ongoing rape of his sister, his father’s physical and sexual abuse of his mother, and both parents’ beating of their children.

The ruling gives Tulare County prosecutors a choice of either converting Hamilton’s sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole or having a new penalty trial to determine whether he should be sentenced to death or life without parole.

Prosecutors at the 1982 trial contended that Hamilton, who had a $100,000 insurance policy on his wife’s life, wanted to kill her so that he could marry another woman.

Hamilton took his appeal to the federal courts after the California Supreme Court upheld his conviction and sentence in 1989.

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