Tuesday, October 21, 2014
U.S. Supreme Court to Hear State’s Bid to Reinstate Death Sentence
Ninth Circuit Panel Said Closed Hearing on Wheeler Challenges Was Unconstitutional
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether a San Diego man, sentenced to death for the 1985 execution-style slayings of three men in a garage, is entitled to a new trial.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled two years ago that the California Supreme Court erred in holding that the trial judge committed harmless error by allowing the prosecution to explain its reasons for peremptory challenges to minority jurors in camera.
In a brief order yesterday, the nation’s highest court granted the state’s certiorari petition, it which it argued that the state high court’s finding that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt was an “adjudication on the merits” within the meaning of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and thus reviewable under that act’s extremely deferential standard. The justices also directed the parties to brief the question of “[w]hether the court of appeals properly applied the standard articulated in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. 619 (1993).”
Brecht held that in determining whether to grant habeas corpus relief from a state conviction, the federal courts should not apply the Chapman harmless-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, but only grant relief for error that “had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”
En Banc Denied
The state petitioned the high court after the Ninth Circuit, over the dissent of eight judges, denied en banc rehearing in the case. A divided panel had ruled in August 2012, and on rehearing in September 2013, that Hector Ayala’s constitutional rights were violated at his 1989 trial.
Ayala was sentenced to death for the murders of Ernesto Dominguez Mendez; his brother-in- law, Marco Zamora; and Jose Rositas. He was also convicted of the attempted murder of Pedro Castillo, the lone survivor of the “unbelievable carnage,” as a prosecutor described it in a newspaper interview.
Castillo was bound and gagged, as well as shot and stabbed, before police found him in the street. He said he had been shot in the back by Ronaldo Ayala, Hector Ayala’s brother, who was tried separately and is also under a death sentence.
The dead men were all gagged, bound, and shot twice in the back of the head. Hector Ayala’s attorney argued that Castillo was a drug dealer and was lying.
More than 200 potential jurors for Hector Ayala’s trial survived hardship screening and filled out questionnaires. A number were removed for cause, and prosecutors used 18 peremptory challenges.
Those removed from the panel included seven black or Hispanic venire members, leaving no blacks or Hispanics on the jury. The defense made three separate mistrial motions under People v. Wheeler, 22 Cal.3d 258 (1978), the California analogue to Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).
San Diego Superior Court Judge Napoleon Jones denied the first two motions, finding that the defense failed to establish a prima facie claim of racial discrimination. On the third motion, the judge found a prima case of bias, but ruled that the prosecution’s explanations for the challenge established that the challenges were race-neutral.
After each motion, the judge followed the same “ex parte, in camera procedure,” as the Ninth Circuit panel put it, over defense objection.
The conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal. The state Supreme Court was unanimous in finding the closed-door procedure improper, but five justices found the error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Since-retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George, joined in dissent by since-retired Justice Joyce L. Kennard, condemned the majority’s “unprecedented conclusion that the erroneous exclusion of the defense from a crucial portion of jury selection proceedings may be deemed harmless.”
A federal district judge denied relief on Ayala’s habeas corpus petition, but Reinhardt said George was correct.
The defense, Reinhardt said, was excluded from a critical portion of the proceedings. And the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, he concluded, because it is possible that the defense could have, if allowed to participate, persuaded the judge that one or more of the strikes was based on racial bias.
Judge Consuelo Callahan argued in dissent that her colleagues were “creating an unreasonable standard for reviewing ancient alleged Batson violations, and refusing to give the California Supreme Court’s findings the deference that several recent United States Supreme Court opinions require.”
The case is Chappell v. Ayala, Supreme Court Docket No. 13-1428.
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