Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, August 23, 2010


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Ninth Circuit Revives Killer’s Challenge to Death Sentence

Defendant Claiming Race Bias in Jury Selection Entitled to Review Under New Standard, Panel Says




A defendant convicted of killing a physician and his wife in their Chico home more than 23 years ago is entitled to a new hearing on his claim that prosecutors struck a black woman from the jury venire because of her race, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

The panel reversed an order by U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell of the Eastern District of California, who denied Steven Edward Crittenden’s petition for writ of habeas corpus.

Judge Raymond Fisher, writing for the appeals court, said the district judge, when he denied the petition five years ago, held the defendant to a higher standard of proof than that required by more recent case law.

Peremptory Challenge

On remand, Fisher said, the defendant is entitled to relief if he can show that race was a “significant motivating factor” in the prosecutor’s exercise of a peremptory challenge to the only African American among the prospective jurors. Damrell had denied the petition because Crittenden could not show that that the prosecutor wouldn’t have stricken the potential juror in the absence of racial motivation.

William and Katherine Chiapella, both in their late 60s, were found stabbed to death on Jan. 27, 1987, having apparently been killed four days earlier.

The police soon arrested Crittenden, who was then a college student and had done some yard work for the couple, linking him to the crime through the statement of an eyewitness who said he saw him near the home on the day of the killings; his cashing of a $3,000 check made out to him and signed by Katherine Chiapella, and his possession of sheets with the same pattern as those used to tie up the Chiapellas and a pair of shoes whose soles matched a shoe print left at the house.

Crittenden claimed that Katherine Chiapella was paying him for sex, that he had not recently worn the shoes that left the print, that he had never been inside the house and that he was with three people at a gym on the afternoon of the killings, all of which was contradicted by other evidence.

Pretrial Publicity

While the crime was committed in Butte County, extensive pretrial publicity resulted in a transfer of venue to Placer County, where a jury found Crittenden guilty of two counts of first degree murder, with special circumstances of robbery-murder, multiple-murder, and torture.

Following a penalty phase, at which the defense presented evidence of the defendant’s brain abnormalities, as well as a number of character witnesses, the jury returned a death penalty verdict and the judge imposed sentence.

The California Supreme Court affirmed in 1994, rejecting the defendant’s Batson-Wheeler claim of discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges. The justices said Crittenden failed to show a prima facie case of bias because he did not establish a “strong likelihood” that the would-be juror was challenged because of her race.

Prima Facie Case

On habeas corpus, Damrell said the California Supreme Court’s holding that the defendant failed to make out a prima facie of discrimination, was contrary to clearly established federal law holding that the showing of a mere inference of discrimination will make out a prima facie case.

He directed a magistrate judge to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issues of whether the prosecution effectively rebutted the prima facie case by presenting evidence of race-neutral reasons for the strike, and if so, whether the defendant had shown an entitlement to relief on the basis of purposeful discrimination.

The prosecutor testified he struck the woman from the jury panel because she was opposed to the death penalty, did not want to serve and had transportation problems. The magistrate judge found that there were sufficient, race-neutral reasons for striking the woman, but also found that race played a part in the prosecutor’s decision-making process “but was not ‘the real reason’ or effective reason” for the challenge.

The magistrate judge found that the prosecutor had used a system of “X” marks to evaluate jurors, and that the stricken juror received a highly negative XXXX rating, even though other panelists with anti-death penalty views receive less negative ratings. The prosecutor, however, “had a good reason to exercise his challenge which outweighed the bad.”

Damrell, employing a “mixed-motives” analysis, upheld the magistrate judge’s findings and denied the petition.

Fisher, however, in his opinion for the Ninth Circuit, cited Cook v. LaMarque, 593 F.3d 810 (9th Cir. 2010), in which the court said that in order to show the “purposeful discrimination” needed to overcome the prosecution’s evidence of race-neutral reasons for a peremptory challenge, the petitioner must establish that “race was a substantial motivating factor.”

Because that standard was not applied when the petition was heard, Fisher said, remand is required.

The court, however, rejected the defendant’s claim that he was denied effective assistance of counsel, that his shackling during trial was objectively unreasonable, and that a juror committed misconduct by discussing the Bible with other panelists during deliberations.

Senior Judge Jerome Farris and Judge Marsha S. Berzon joined in the opinion.

The case is Crittenden v. Ayers, 05-99006.


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