PHILADELPHIA -- As a troubled youngster, Landon May worried he had inherited "bad blood" from his father, a notorious killer on Pennsylvania's death row.
Now, on death row himself for the torture killings of a school principal and her husband, May is hoping the state Supreme Court might give him another chance to argue he was fated to follow in his father's violent footsteps.
In an unusual appeal, May's lawyer said experts should have been allowed to testify when jurors were deliberating May's sentence that he was genetically predisposed to violence, given his family history.
Attorney Christopher Lyden said the jurors might have considered leniency for May if they knew the full extent of his father's past, or about the violent streak possessed by his grandfather, who served prison time for sexually assaulting his own daughters.
May's father, Freeman May, has been in prison since his son was six months old, and on death row since 1995, when he was convicted of the 1982 murder of a Lancaster woman.
"Would the jury have given him a different sentence? It's impossible to tell. But we should have been allowed to make our case," Lyden said.
Prosecutors said on Sept. 6, 2001, May and an accomplice, Michael Bourgeois, broke into the home of Bourgeois' adoptive parents, Lucy and Terry Smith, and spent two hours torturing them to death. May, now 21, was 19 at the time.
The couple suffered nearly 200 wounds from being stabbed, shot and beaten. Lucy Smith was also sexually assaulted.
During May's trial last year, a judge ruled the misdeeds of his father were irrelevant to jurors trying to decide whether he should be put to death. The jury sentenced May to death in December.
Under Pennsylvania law, jurors considering a death penalty must weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of a crime, and can opt for leniency if they find a person's actions were motivated in part by factors beyond their control.
During the penalty phase of the trial, forensic psychiatrist Neil Blumberg was to have testified that Landon May was genetically predisposed to develop mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, cognitive disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Philadelphia defense attorney David Rudovsky, who is not involved with the case, said it is common for defendants facing the death penalty to introduce evidence of an abusive upbringing, but rare for them to claim bad genes.
"There are some daunting obstacles, in terms of proving the science of it, but it could be a viable argument," he said. "In the same way that you could argue that someone was beaten as a kid, and turned into a killer, why not argue genetics?"
Lyden is seeking a new sentencing hearing for May. The appeal could take years.