The Supreme Court opened the new year by unanimously reversing two 9th Circuit cases within one week of January 1. Unsurprisingly, Ryan v. Gonzales involved the death penalty, a case written by a 9th Circuit judge who has never affirmed a capital case in the last decade. (The other Supreme Court case involved polluted water.)
Although the Supreme Court decision does not include the date of Gonzales’ conviction for the crime of murder, he was sentenced in 1999 for brutally stabbing a husband and wife during a burglary. Gonzales was sentenced to death, the case affirmed on appeal in state court, and his round of state collateral reviews exhausted. Defense counsel for Gonzales filed habeas corpus in U.S. district court. While the petition was pending, counsel filed mandate in the 9th Circuit alleging his mentally incompetent client could not assist him in preparing the petition and sought a stay of proceedings.
Instead of conforming to AEDPA governing federal habeas review of state court rulings, the 9th Circuit panel in Gonzales applied 18 U.S.C. 3599, a little known federal statute authorizing payment of funds to habeas corpus counsel in capital cases. The statute says nothing about mental incompetence or delay of proceedings, but the 9th Circuit held an inmate is entitled to effective assistance of counsel in habeas corpus cases. 623 F.3d 1242 (9th Cir. 2010). The panel cited Rohan v. Woodford, 334 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 2003) and Nash v. Ryan, 581 F.3d 1048 (9th Cir. 2009) as precedent for their opinion. Both these cases held the district court must stay habeas corpus proceedings of a mentally incompetent inmate until competence is restored. In other words, eliminating the death penalty.
Neither the statute nor the 6th Amendment right to counsel say anything about approving appellate court delay attributable to mentally incompetent inmates. As the Supreme Court points out, review of habeas cases by counsel differs from legal assistance of counsel at trial, and includes only review of the state court record. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S._There is no need for input by the inmate. Moreover, in habeas proceedings, there is no right to counsel at all. Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U.S. 1 (1989).
Not only did the Supreme Court reverse the 9th Circuit, it also specifically reversed the two precedents, Rohan and Nash, on which the 9th Circuit relied for its opinion in Gonzales. In all three cases the 9th Circuit panels tried to avoid AEDPA and relied on a statute unrelated to any question of assistance of counsel or staying proceedings. In other words, the Supreme Court in a single case reversed the 9th Circuit in all three cases.
Another gruesome and indefensible murder with no argument on guilt. In its usual rambling summary of counsel and his “ineffective defense” to a crime that warrants the death penalty no matter the content of the “mitigating” evidence, the Ninth Circuit panel remands the case for another hearing on the penalty phase.
This Blog recited the evidence of the horrifying facts in Ayers v. Belmontes 549 U.S. 7 (2006); Blog, July 2006. The jury convicted Belmontes and voted the death penalty. The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and penalty in 1988; Peo. v. Belmontes, 755 P.2d 310 (1988). Unable to obtain post-trial relief in state courts, Belmontes filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court. The U.S. District Court denied the petition but on appeal the Ninth Circuit discovered instructional error and reversed; Belmontes v. Woodford, 350 F.3d 861 (9th Cir. 2003). California sought cert., and the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit for its failure to follow Supreme Court precedent. In a two line decision, the Justices and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration of its decision; Brown v. Belmontes, 544 U.S. 945 (2005). In its “reconsidered” decision, the Ninth Circuit reversed again on grounds counsel for Belmontes was “ineffective;” Belmontes v. Ayers, 529 F.3d 834 (9th Cir. 2008). The State of California sought cert. again in the Supreme Court. Granted. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in an opinion decrying Ninth Circuit reasoning as incomprehensible; Wong, Id., 130 S.Ct. 383 (2010).
On remand, the 9th Circuit was “compelled” to confirm the District Court denial of habeas corpus; 608 F.3d 1117 (2010).
The Ninth Circuit has repeatedly reversed death penalty cases on grounds of “ineffective counsel.” With a single exception, the Ninth Circuit overruled, in effect, every state supreme court decision affirming a conviction and sentence in death penalty cases since the year 2000. No matter what investigation defense counsel undertook to investigate and present mitigating evidence, the scope was always deficient.
In Van Hook, a unanimous Supreme Court wrote a narrow decision criticizing the Sixth Circuit for slavishly adhering to the ABA rules on the duty of defense counsel in capital cases. Although the Supreme Court focused on, and rejected, ABA rules as “guidelines” for defense counsel, the Justices indirectly criticized federal courts insisting on an endless quest by defense counsel for mitigation evidence.
In Van Hook, the Supreme Court never mentions the Ninth Circuit record of reversals of capital cases, but its decision warrants the conclusion that judicially arguing over whether counsel “investigated enough” is no longer sufficient to set aside a death penalty case already affirmed by a state court. In all cases the Ninth Circuit invokes habeas corpus to mandate a new trial, release from custody, or re sentencing despite decisions by a trial judge, the state supreme court, and a U.S. District Court judge who have affirmed the trial and sentence.
Reversed & remanded.
The Supreme Court has denied cert. in McDaniel v. Sechrest, 2009 WL 2058161 (C.A. 9) in yet another “ineffective counsel” case. Apparently the defense lawyer stipulated that the prosecutor could call a doctor who had examined Sechrest in the capacity of a defense witness. Although obviously unusual, defense counsel testified in a post evidentiary hearing that he thought the testimony would be more favorable. Admittedly questionable, but if the defendant had called the witness the testimony would have been the same. Or, if he did not call the doctor at all, there would have been no testimony. The result would have been the same. Here is the Ninth Circuit summary of the evidence: “On May 14, 1983, [the defendant] kidnapped and murdered ten-year old Maggie Weaver and nine -year-old Carly Villa. A few weeks later, two men found the girls’ bodies in [a canyon] a remote area east of Reno, Nevada.” This one sentence matter-of-fact rendition of a vicious murder of two young children surely did not warm the hearts of the parents. The court wrote nothing about the facts of the double homicide of two innocent and vulnerable children, and the defendant had no defense having confessed voluntarily to committing the crime, (even the Ninth Circuit panel could not reverse on Miranda grounds). But the prosecutor in his closing argument to the jury referred to the pathetic defense case as a “sham” and defense counsel failed to object. “Highly prejudicial” said the Ninth Circuit, so harmful the court vacated the death penalty. The Ninth Circuit panel evaded the obvious procedural default of the defendant on his writ of habeas corpus and the court held it was not prevented form resolving another legal issue never raised in the defendant’s state court post conviction filing. When the prosecutor argued for the death penalty to the jury, he apparently mis cited the State of Nevada rules on parole and the defendant’s eligibility for release from custody. The last straw: Sechrest was convicted in 1983 and the Supreme Court denied cert in 2009. And the case is not over. The Ninth Circuit panel ordered further evidentiary hearings.