An appeals court has thrown out the death sentence of an Arizona man convicted in the 1981 murder of another man who was targeted for being gay, ordering that he get a new sentencing trial or be given life in prison.

Steven Craig James, 53, has been on death row for nearly 20 years in the Nov. 17, 1981, beating death of Juan Maya.

Although a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called Maya’s killing an appalling hate crime in which he was robbed taunted, beaten, shot and thrown into a mine shaft, they threw out James’ death sentence.

In an opinion filed Wednesday, the judges wrote that James’ attorney at the time was ineffective for his “complete failure” to investigate and present the sentencing judge with evidence of James’ troubled childhood, bipolar disorder and history of chronic drug abuse — so-called mitigating factors that could have made him eligible for a sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty.

In James’ case, the 9th Circuit called the mitigating factors “powerful,” writing that James’ birth parents were “utterly unfit” and exposed him to violence, drug abuse, poverty and sexual predators before he was given up for adoption. His adoptive father “administered disciplinary beatings,” and James later became a habitual drug user and high school drop-out, the court wrote.

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