Thursday, July 21, 2016
Panel Rejects Ineffective Assistance Claims In San Diego Triple-Slaying Case
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday rejected claims that a man sentenced to die for his role in the murders of three people at a San Diego business received ineffective assistance from his defense team.
The order affirming the denial of Reynaldo Ayala’s habeas corpus petition came one year and one day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his brother can be executed for the same crimes.
The Ayala brothers were tried and sentenced separately for the murders of Ernesto Dominguez Mendez; his brother-in-law, Marco Zamora; and Jose Rositas. They were also convicted of the attempted murder of Pedro Castillo, the lone survivor of the “unbelievable carnage” at the body shop located on 43rd Street 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 Reynaldo (Ronaldo) Ayala.
The dead men were all gagged, bound, and shot twice in the back of the head. Defense lawyers argued that Castillo was a drug dealer—Castillo testified that it was Dominguez and Zamora who were selling heroin from the shop—and that he was lying to protect the real killers, with whom he was in cahoots.
The California Supreme Court affirmed Reynaldo Ayala’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal, and subsequently denied his habeas corpus petition. That petition raised dozens of claims, focusing primarily on his argument that his trial lawyers had performed deficiently.
Among other things, he said, those attorneys failed to present evidence that would have effectively impeached key prosecution witnesses Castillo and Juan Meza. The potential evidence would have included testimony of two witnesses who would have said that Meza implicated the brothers in order to obtain a reduction in his own sentence for cocaine possession, and of two others claiming that Castillo had previously solicited them to implicate Zamora.
The state high court said that the decision not to call those witnesses was objectively reasonable because the defense lawyers were pursuing a strategy of keeping all evidence of gang involvement—the Ayala brothers were believed to be members of the Mexican Mafia—out of the trial.
They had succeeded in winning a motion in limine excluding all mention of the Mexican Mafia in connection with the defendant’s alleged motive or affiliations. The high court said that not calling the witnesses mentioned in the habeas petition was consistent with the strategy, because the testimony would necessarily have led to mention of gangs, and the lawyers had reason to believe that the potential benefit of the testimony would not have outweighed the harm that such mention would do to the defense case.
Judge Morgan Christen, writing for the Ninth Circuit in Ayala v. Chappell, 13-99005, said the ruling of the state high court was entitled to deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
A different Ninth Circuit panel ruled in 2012 that Hector Ayala was entitled to a new trial because the trial judge allowed a prosecutor to explain his reasons for excluding seven black and Hispanic potential jurors in private. But the U.S. Supreme Court, in last year’s 5-4 decision, said the California Supreme Court’s prior ruling—that the procedure, although unconstitutional, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because there were unquestionably legitimate reasons to excuse all seven of the venire members—was entitled to AEDPA deference.
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