Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, October 27, 2015


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Court Upholds New Trial Order in Capital Case




A Death Row inmate is entitled to a new trial because a potential juror was removed from the venire for what were substantially reasons of race, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The panel agreed with U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller of the Eastern District of California that Steven Crittenden was entitled to a new trial based on Cook v. LaMarque, 593 F.3d 810 (9th Cir. 2010).

The Cook court said a defendant, in order to show the “purposeful discrimination” needed to overcome the prosecution’s evidence of race-neutral reasons for a peremptory challenge, need not establish that race was  the primary reason for the strike, only that it was “a substantial motivating factor.”

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.

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.

On habeas corpus, U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell—since retired—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.

The Ninth Circuit, in Crittenden v. Ayers, 624 F.3d 943, (9th Cir. 2010), rejected the mixed-motives analysis and remanded for a new hearing using the Cook standard. Mueller found that race was a substantial motivating factor and ordered a new trial.

In yesterday’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit rejected prosecutor’s argument that Cook should not have been applied because its holding was a “new rule” that should not be given retroactive effect, under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989).   

Senior Judge Raymond C. Fisher concluded that Cook did not state a new rule, but merely clarified the standard for implementing challenges to race-based use of peremptory challenges under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

Fisher also concluded that the state courts’ rejection of Crittenden’s Batson challenge was contrary to the Supreme Court’s decision in that case and thus not entitled to deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

Judge Marsha Berzon concurred, but Judge M. Margaret McKeown dissented.

McKeown said she agreed with her colleagues regarding Teague and AEDPA, but argued that race was not a substantial factor in the venire member being stricken and criticized “the mental gymnastics demanded by a retrospective jury analysis taking place decades after the trial.”

The case is Crittenden v. Chappell, 13-17327.


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