Friday, March 5, 2004
Ninth Circuit Orders New Trial in Killing of DEA Agents
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ordered again ordered a new trial for a convicted accomplice in the 1988 murders of two Drug Enforcement Administration agents gunned down when a drug string went sour.
A divided panel said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gilbert Alston, since retired, deprived Michael Su Chia of his right to defend himself by excluding statements by one of the shooters, William Wei Wang, who claimed that Chia had nothing to do with the killings.
The same panel had ordered a new trial for Chia two years ago, but prosecutors sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued among other things that the Ninth Circuit had not applied the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which includes limitations on federal habeas corpus review of state criminal convictions.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration in light of Lockyer v. Andrade (2003) 538 U.S. 63, in which the high court explained the narrow standard that requires a showing that the state court’s decision violated, or was an unreasonable application of, “clearly established” federal law as determined by Supreme Court precedent.
Chia was 20 years old when Alston sentenced him to 61 years to life in prison 14 years ago for his role in the deaths of agents Paul Seema and George Montoya and the wounding of agent Jose Martinez. Prosecutors claimed that Chia, while not present at the bloody Pasadena shootout over $80,000 worth of heroin, acted as a lookout in the plot to rob the agents.
Wang was the only one of the three alleged robbers to survive. The others were killed by a DEA backup team in a Monterey Park shootout.
Wang, in statements to the FBI and Pasadena police made days after the shootings, confessed that he planned to rob the agents and knew that one of the deceased co-conspirators planned to kill them. His close friend Chia, Wang claimed, told him not to through with the plot and was in the area at the time only out of concern for Wang.
Wang, however, took the Fifth Amendment when called as a defense witness at the Chia trial, and Alston ruled that Wang’s statements to the FBI were inadmissible hearsay.
Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, writing for the panel yesterday, said the exclusion of an unavailable witness’ statement exculpating the accused is an unreasonable application of the Due Process Clause when the statement is reliable and material.
Such evidence, she said, cannot be kept out on the basis of “mechanistic application of state hearsay rules.”
Judge Alex Kozinski joined in Nelson’s opinion, but Senior Judge Melvin Brunetti dissented. Wang’s statements, Brunetti wrote, “do not bear sufficient indicia of reliability.”
Wang, he noted, gave four statements, the first two of which did not mention Chia.
Brunetti also argued that the California Court of Appeal ruling upholding Alston’s decision to exclude the statements was consistent with the Supreme Court’s precedent, which, the dissenting justice noted, does not require admission of uncorroborated hearsay.
The case is Chia v. Cambra, 99-56361.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company