Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, June 19, 2015


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U.S. Supreme Court Revives Death Sentence in San Diego Slayings

Justices Reverse Ninth Circuit, Say Exclusion of Defense From Part of Hearing Was Harmless




A San Diego Superior Court judge, who allowed a prosecutor to explain his reasons for excluding seven black and Hispanic potential jurors from a capital case jury in private, did not prejudice the defense because the reasons for striking the seven were unquestionably legitimate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices reinstated the conviction and death sentence of Hector Ayala for the 1985 execution-style slayings of three men in a garage.

A Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in 2012 that Judge Napoleon A. Jones Jr. —who later became a federal district judge and died in 2009—violated Ayala’s constitutional rights when he allowed prosecutors to explain their reasons for the peremptory challenges without the defense present, so that they would not have to explain their trial strategy.

Alito Opinion

But Justice Samuel Alito, writing yesterday for the high court, said the defense failed to show why the California Supreme Court’s ruling—that the procedure, although unconstitutional, was harmless in this case beyond a reasonable doubt—was not entitled to deference. The Ninth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, said it was reasonably possible the defense, if present, could have persuaded the judge that at least one of the seven was stricken for discriminatory reasons.

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.

Voir Dire

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, including the seven that removed all black and Hispanic members of the panel.

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).

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.

On direct appeal, the state Supreme Court was unanimous in condemning the closed-door procedure, but five justices found the error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

State High Court

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.”

Alito, however, said there was nothing in the state Supreme Court majority’s harmless-error analysis that contradicted the U.S. high court’s precedent.

Prosecutors, Alito noted, said they struck the seven because all seemed reluctant to impose the death penalty, among other reasons, including one having closely followed a controversial murder case, one having a limited grasp of English and appearing not to get along well with the other panelists, one having been a holdout in another case, and one having a record of multiple arrests.

The defense, he said, failed to show that any of the white jurors accepted by the prosecution had sufficiently similar responses to support an inference of discrimination. Alito noted that the use of peremptory challenges may require “fine judgment calls” by counsel and said the trial judge was in the best position to evaluate jurors’ statements and demeanor to determine whether counsel’s calls were based on impermissible considerations.

Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it “strains credulity” to suggest that a court dealing with a complex capital case would consider all the relevant facts to make a decision “without the presence of defense counsel to help bring it to their attention.” She said the exclusion of Ayala’s lawyers prevented him from making his strongest argument and impeded his ability to raise the issue on appeal.

She was joined in dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Kennedy wrote separately to note that Ayala has been held in solitary confinement for most of his 25 years in custody. He questioned, as he has in the past, the growing trend of keeping inmates in solitary confinement up to 23 hours a day.

Kennedy said research shows that “years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price” and suggested that courts may be required in the future to decide whether there are better alternatives. Quoting Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Kennedy said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

In a brief retort, Thomas said “the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims…now rest,” pointing out that their lives were all shorter than the time Ayala has been incarcerated.

The case is Davis v. Ayala, 13-1428.


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