Friday, June 19, 2020
Three Judges Fault California High Court for Failing to Find That Defense Counsel’s Performance Was Deficient, but Majority Says Denial of the Writ Was Nonetheless ‘Not Objectively Unreasonable’
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed denial of habeas relief to a man convicted of murdering his parents in 1990, with the three judges agreeing that the California Supreme Court was “unreasonable” in failing to find a slip-up by the defense lawyer, but two of them declaring that the conviction was apt to have occurred in the absence of his blunder .
Circuit Judges Susan P. Graber, Marsha S. Berzon, and Michelle T. Friedland were in accord that Irwindale attorney John Tyre was remiss in not introducing testimony that members of the East Side Dukes (“ESD”) gang drove by the La Puente home of Arthur and Faye Staten the morning after they were slain and, according to the witnesses, took credit for the murders. The husband was shot once in the head and the wife was stabbed 181 times.
Tyre was court appointed counsel for Deondre Staten, son of the slayed couple.
The defendant was convicted by a jury on Dec 5, 1991 of murder in the first degree. The jury found true the special circumstances of murder for financial gain—there was a $300,000 insurance policy—multiple murder, and personal use of a gun and a knife.
Staten was sentenced to death by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alfonso M. Bazan (now deceased) on Jan. 16, 1992, as recommended by the jury.
The Ninth Circuit, in its 2-1 decision yesterday, affirmed the denial of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus by District Court Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald of the Central District of California.
It acted under constraints of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act which precludes countermanding a state court’s determination of a claim on the merits unless it was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”
Federal law was not in issue.
Authoring the Ninth Circuit’s majority opinion, Graber said:
“We conclude that Tyre rendered deficient performance by failing to present testimony that ESD members appeared to claim credit for the murders. It was objectively unreasonable for the California Supreme Court to conclude otherwise.”
The state high court so concluded, inferentially, in 2002 when it denied Staten’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus “on the merits for failure to state a prima facie case for relief.” It also found most of the claims were untimely.
Graber noted that while Tyre suggested to the jury a killing by the ESD, all there was to back up the theory was some ESD graffiti “of disputed authenticity, found at the house.” She wrote:
“Tyre’s choice not to present evidence of a direct connection between the ESD and the murders was not reasonable. Although the witnesses’ declarations are not entirely consistent with one another regarding certain details about the incident, the basic account is consistent: ESD members drove by and behaved in a way that suggested that they were claiming credit for the murders….It would not have been a reasonable trial strategy for Tyre to choose not to present his only evidence (besides the ‘ESD’ graffiti at the Staten residence) linking the ESD to the murders simply because the witnesses’ accounts were not consistent on every detail.
“The testimony of those witnesses in squarely into Tyre’s defense theory: that ESD gang members committed the murders when Petitioner left the house that night….Tyre’s choice not to make use of readily available evidence, from apparently disinterested witnesses, that would have enhanced his chosen defense theory was unreasonable.”
Point of Disagreement
Berzon agreed with that and certain other aspects of the opinion. Her disagreement was with Graber’s conclusion that habeas relief is not available because “fairminded jurists could disagree as to whether the testimony of the five witnesses regarding ESD members’ boasting was reasonably likely to have changed the outcome of Petitioner’s trial” and that “the California Supreme Court’s summary denial of that claim was not objectively unreasonable.”
Berzon’s view was that “there was compelling evidence” that Staten was guilty; that Tyre was remiss in not presenting what he omitted because it was stronger than what he did offer and “not because the testimony was compelling”; and that it “would not have undermined any of the evidence that the prosecution presented.”
“The case against Staten was based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. There were no witnesses to the murders; no murder weapon was ever found; blood samples from the crime scene were inconclusive. The evidence Staten introduced in his state habeas filing, if credited, was direct and compelling. Given that contrast, even under the deference to the state courts required under…the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996…, the conclusion that the jury would not likely have been swayed had the five witnesses testified to the ESD gang’s bravado is not minimally persuasive.”
She said she would order further briefing as to the California Supreme Court’s denial of relief on procedural grounds or remand for consideration of the matter by the District Court.
The case is Staten v. Davis, 17-99008.
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