Wednesday, December 3, 2008
U.S. High Court Reverses Ninth Circuit in Murder Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The possibility that a jury, instructed on alternative theories of guilt, may have found the defendant guilty on an erroneous theory because of a flaw in the instructions does not necessarily require reversal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Reversing the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 6-3 per curiam decision, the high court ordered that the grant of habeas corpus relief to a convicted Northern California murderer be reconsidered.
The case involves the 1993 conviction and life-without-parole sentence of Michael Robert Pulido for the robbery and murder of Ramon Flores, a cashier at a Bay Area Shell gas station. Testimony at trial indicated that Flores was murdered in the early morning hours of May 24, 1992, by a .45 caliber gunshot to the head.
The following day, the gas station cash register was found on the side of a road.
Shortly after the murder, Pulido was arrested on an auto theft charge. While in custody, he volunteered information about the crime and led police to some discarded .45 caliber cartridges which appeared to have come from the same gun used in the murder.
Pulido’s uncle, Michael Aragon, said the defendant admitted the crime. Pulido claimed that it was Aragon who robbed the station and shot the clerk.
Prosecutors linked Pulido to the crime based on fingerprints found on the cash register and on a can of Coke found on the gas station counter, and noted that no fingerprints from Aragon were found. Pulido testified that he never touched a Coke can on the morning of the murder and that perhaps he handled the can on an earlier visit to the station.
Jurors found Pulido guilty of first degree murder with a robbery special circumstance, but deadlocked as to whether he personally used a firearm or committed great bodily injury. On appeal, he argued, among other things, that as a result of an erroneous jury instruction, jurors may have incorrectly believed that he could be convicted of murder if he joined a robbery after the victim was killed by someone else.
The California Supreme Court agreed that a “late joiner” may not be convicted of murder, but said that any error in the instructions was harmless because the jury—by finding the robbery special circumstance—necessarily determined that Pulido’s involvement in the robbery began before the victim was killed.
The Ninth Circuit, however, classified the error as “structural” and held that where a jury is instructed on multiple theories of guilt, one of which is improper, the conviction must be set aside unless it is an “absolute certainty” that the defendant was convicted on a proper theory.
The high court, however, said there was no structural error, and that the Ninth Circuit should have applied the standard set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993) 507 U.S. 619. That case—which involved prosecution comment on post-Miranda silence—held that error in the conduct of a trial will support the granting of habeas corpus relief only if it “had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”
The majority—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy—rejected the defendant’s claim that the Ninth Circuit followed Brecht. The justices noted that Brecht was mentioned only briefly, in a footnote to the opinion, and said:
“In any event, an ‘absolute certainty’ standard is plainly inconsistent with Brecht.”
The court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit so that the Brecht analysis can be performed.
Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, acknowledged that the Ninth Circuit’s reference to “structural” error was incorrect.
Stevens argued, however, that both the district judge and the Ninth Circuit panel engaged in the required analysis and reasonably determined that the instructional error violated Pulido’s right to due process. “In my opinion, the interest in expediting the conclusion of this protracted litigation outweighs the interest in correcting a misnomer.”
Sending the case back “for the purpose of obtaining a third analysis of the harmless-error issue,” Stevens wrote, “is a misuse of scarce judicial resources.”
Kent Scheidegger of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus brief supporting the prosecution—as did the U.S. Department of Justice—issued a statement hailing the decision.
“Once again, the Supreme Court has had to rein in the Ninth Circuit for ignoring established rules,” he said.
“Trials are never perfect,” Scheidegger wrote. “Today’s ruling reaffirms that convictions will not be overturned for minor problems which have no substantial effect on the verdict.”
The case is Hedgpeth v. Pulido, 07-544.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company