Thursday, August 1, 2002
Ninth Circuit Finds Lawyer Was Ineffective, Orders New Murder Trial in Sacramento Shooting
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Sacramento attorney’s failure to talk to potential witnesses before settling on his defense strategy constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A divided panel ordered a new trial for Victor Rios, convicted of second degree murder in the shooting death of James Hampton at a party attended by dozens of people in front of a Sacramento eatery. Witnesses testified that gang members—some of them from Los Angeles—were present.
Witnesses testified that Hampton had beaten Rios severely early in the evening, and that Rios and co-defendant John Lewis had left the scene and returned with guns. There was testimony tying Rios to the scene of the shooting, although at least one witness declared that someone other than Lewis or Rios was the shooter.
Lewis relied on a misidentification defense and was acquitted. Rios’ attorney, Ronald Castro, argued that his client was, at the time of the shooting, not conscious of his actions—a result of the earlier beating—and thus not responsible under California law.
While Castro offered expert testimony in support of the unconsciousness defense, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote, the strategy was “ill-advised” and should not have been settled upon without full investigation.
The failure to investigate an alternative defense was a breach of prevailing professional standards and prejudicial to the client, Reinhardt said.
He cited the testimony of a defense witness—called by Lewis’ attorney—that exonerated Rios as the shooter, the availability of several other witnesses who would have given exculpatory testimony if they had been called, and the fact that the use of the unconsciousness defense forced Rios to acknowledge that he might have been the shooter.
Senior Judge John T. Noonan concurred in the opinion.
Senior Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez dissented. The prosecution’s case was strong, he argued, and Castro had ample opportunity to review the evidence and make a reasoned judgment as to the best defense.
A misidentification defense, he said, might well have failed even if all of the possible witnesses were called. Fernandez pointed out that the witnesses’ statements offered at the habeas corpus hearing conflicted with each other, that several had made prior inconsistent statements, and that all admitted they were drinking.
“Really, in foresight, Rios’ best hope probably was the mental defense adopted by Castro,” the judge argued.
Castro told the MetNews he had not read the opinion, but was “glad to hear” the result. Having your former client accuse you of ineffective assistance in a bid to win his own freedom “is one of the vagaries of being a defense attorney,” the lawyer said.
“I don’t know if I was ineffective or not,” he said. But he remains supportive of Rios, who “didn’t deserve to have anything like this happen to him,” he said.
The case is Rios v. Rocha, 01-15835.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company