Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, October 1, 2012


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Ninth Circuit Overturns Antelope Valley Death Sentence


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday ordered a new trial for a man convicted of a 1986 murder his attorneys claim was committed by his brother.

The panel held, 2-1, that Armenia Cudjo Jr. is entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. A 1993 California Supreme Court ruling that affirmed Cudjo’s conviction and sentence for the murder of Amelia Prokudo misapplied “clearly established federal law” that permits a defendant to present “trustworthy and necessary exculpatory testimony” under the Due Process Clause, the court said.  

Prokuda’s partially clad body was found in the bedroom of her home in Littlerock. A bloodstained hammer and a broken fireplace poker were nearby.

State Supreme Court

The state high court, in a 5-2 decision in People v. Cudjo (1993) 6 Cal. 4th 585, agreed with the defendant that since-retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard Schwab abused his discretion when he declined to allow the defense to call a witness named John Culver. Culver testified outside the jury’s presence that he had known the Cudjo brothers for years and that Gregory Cudjo—whose statements to the police implicated his brother—confessed to the murder while he and Culver were confined together at the Antelope Valley sheriff’s substation.

In a per curiam opinion, the court said “doubts about Culver’s credibility, though reasonable and legitimate, did not provide a sufficient basis to exclude his testimony.”

The justices also concluded, however, that the erroneous exclusion of a witness on the ground the testimony would be unreliable does not violate the federal Constitution, and is thus judged under the state-law probability standard, rather than that of harmless-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt. Since jurors probably would not have believed Culver’s testimony—because he was a friend of Armenia Cudjo, the purported confession conflicted with other evidence, and the prosecution’s case was strong—the court said, its exclusion did not require reversal.

Kennard Dissent

Justice Joyce L. Kennard, joined by since-deceased Justice Stanley Mosk, dissented. Kennard argued that the error was of constitutional dimension and that the conviction should be reversed because a reasonable juror might not have voted to convict after hearing Culver’s testimony.

In 1999, the high court denied Cudjo’s habeas corpus petition, in which he contended that his trial lawyer—William A. Clark, since deceased—inadequately investigated statements by a neighbor and a building contractor suggesting that Ubaldo Prokuda might have beaten his wife to death.  

U.S. District Judge John Walter of the Central District of California denied Cudjo’s federal petition, but Judge N. Randy Smith, writing Friday for the Ninth Circuit, said the exclusion of the defense witness violated Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973). “The facts in Chambers”—the case also dealt with exclusion of witnesses who would have exculpated the defendant by implicating another individual—“are materially indistinguishable from the facts in this appeal,” Smith wrote, so the high standard for federal habeas relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was met.

That holding made it unnecessary to consider Cudjo’s claims of ineffective-assistance or other errors, Smith said. 

Dissenting Opinion

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski concurred, but Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain dissented.

The dissenting jurist argued that the case is distinguishable from Chambers, because the trial judge in that case mechanistically applied anachronistic state rules, including the “voucher” rule that a party cannot impeach his own witness, to exclude witnesses whose reliability was not questioned.

“Here, by contrast, the only evidence that Gregory Cudjo admitted to the crime was the word of a witness of dubious veracity,” O’Scannlain wrote. While Schwab committed a “significant” error of state law, O’Scannlain said, the state high court “did not act unreasonably when it declined to extend Chambers to cover a simple error in balancing the prejudicial effect against the probative value of a piece of evidence.”

The appeal was argued by Deputy Federal Public Defender John Lewis Littrell for Cudjo and by Supervising Deputy Attorney General James W. Bilderback II for the prosecution.

The case is Cudjo v. Ayers, 08-99028.


Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company