Tuesday, June 22, 2004
U.S. High Court Overturns Ninth Circuit Ruling, Deals Setback to Ex-Officer Convicted of Murder-for-Hire
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday dealt a severe blow to the hopes of a former Los Angeles police officer to overturn his life-without-parole sentence as a hired killer.
A divided panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had granted a new habeas corpus hearing to Richard Ford in September 2002, saying Ford may have been misled, “although not intentionally,” into thinking he could dismiss his claims and litigate them later.
The magistrate judge hearing the petitions, which Ford filed pro se, should have explained to Ford that he risked losing his claims entirely if he dismissed them, went back to state court, lost there, and tried to come back to federal court beyond the limitations period imposed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Ninth Circuit held.
But in a 7-2 decision, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissenting, the high court held that the magistrate judge’s only duty was to avoid affirmatively misleading the petitioner into thinking that he could dismiss his federal claims and get a hearing on their merits later.
The case was remanded for a determination as to whether Ford was, in fact, affirmatively misled.
Ford and fellow officer Robert Von Villas, dubbed the “Killer Cops” by journalists covering their cases, were convicted in 1988 of murdering businessman Thomas Weed for financial gain. Weed’s widow, Janie Ogilvie, testified that she hired the two officers to kill her estranged husband in order to put an end to bitter divorce proceedings.
Ogilvie pled guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life. Von Villas and Ford were convicted in another case of attempting to murder Jean Loguercio—a friend of Von Villas who worked as an exotic dancer in Hollywood—as well as conspiracy to murder Loguercio’s husband to collect life insurance proceeds. and robbery of a Northridge jewelry store.
Ford received a sentence of 36 years to life in prison in that case.
Ford’s convictions were affirmed in 1992. His petitions for review in the state and U.S. Supreme Courts were denied in 1993.
On April 19, 1997, he filed pro se habeas corpus petitions seeking to set aside his convictions. He claimed that multiple evidentiary and instructional errors by Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Darlene Schempp in the Weed case and Alexander Williams III in the Loguercio case had denied him due process.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Hillman concluded that Ford had filed improper “mixed” petitions—ones that included some claims that were exhausted in state court and others that were not. Although Ford moved for a stay so that he could litigate the unexhausted claims in state court while preserving his exhausted claims, Hillman held that the federal petitions would have to be dismissed without prejudice unless Ford dismissed the unexhausted claims.
Ford did not dismiss any of his claims, and Hillman recommended that the petitions be dismissed without prejudice. Then-U.S. District Judge Richard A. Paez, since elevated to the Ninth Circuit, agreed.
Ford then filed state habeas corpus petitions, which the California Supreme Court summarily denied.
He then filed new federal petitions in 1998, which Paez dismissed as time-barred under AEDPA. The act establishes a one-year limitations period in which to bring a federal habeas corpus petition challenging a conviction.
Defendants such as Ford, whose convictions were affirmed before AEDPA was enacted, generally must have filed their habeas corpus petitions no later than April 24, 1997, one year after AEDPA became law.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the Ninth Circuit, agreed that the district court could not stay Ford’s mixed petitions. But it could have allowed him to dismiss his unexhausted claims, then stayed the petitions while he litigated in state court, then allowed him to amend his petitions to bring the newly exhausted claims back into the federal case, the judge said.
But Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the high court, said it is up to lawyers, not judges, to advise petitioners as to the consequences of the potentially difficult decision that arises when there is an opportunity to litigate exhausted claims on the one hand, but the possibility of permanently losing unexhausted claims on the other.
The alternative, Thomas said, would be to “force upon district judges the potentially burdensome, time-consuming, and fact-intensive task of making a case-specific investigation and calculation of whether the AEDPA limitations period has already run or will have run by the time the petitioner returns to federal court.”
The case is Pliler v. Ford, 03-221.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company