One of the most difficult criminal cases for the prosecution to try are those involving domestic violence. Prosecutors often discover that after the passage of time between infliction of injury and trial the witness decides not to prosecute. Advising the witness to the consequence of dismissing the case, i.e., further violent conduct or retaliation, is not always successful. The indecision to testify occurs even at trial. Whether the witness will testify and, if so, to what extent is always an issue. Ortiz v. Yates is an example. And another state court case reversed on habeas corpus.
Couple this indecision of a witness with an appellate judge who has never tried a criminal case, and the outcome is disastrous. In Ortiz, the witness appeared at the police station, bruised and wounded, to report her husband caused the injuries, and she demanded a restraining order. Her statement was recorded on notes by a police officer but prior to trial the witness refused to talk to a DA investigator. She submitted an inconsistent declaration of the evidence, and her testimony at trial was equivocal. On her cross examination the court refused to allow evidence of an alleged pre trial threat by the prosecutor that she would confront perjury if she was untruthful.
Obviously the jury understood she was a reluctant and recalcitrant witness, but the photos taken by police confirming her injuries, and the interviewing officer’s notes were more than sufficient to convince the jury she had been assaulted. The prosecutor also introduced evidence of the defendant’s prior conviction-for the same offense. The jury found the defendant-who did not testify-guilty.
This trial occurred 13 years ago; the California Court of Appealed affirmed the convicton; the U.S. district judge denied the petition for habeas corpus. The 9th Circuit 2-1 panel discarded the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) with the usual excuse that the trial court refusal to admit testimony about an alleged prosecution threat violated the Sixth Amendment right of confrontation and cross examination of witnesses..This “constitutional error” was an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent under AEDPA.
The inability of an appellate judge to understand domestic violence trials is patent. The jury could tell the witness was ambivalent, inconsistent, and indecisive . No one needs a law degree to understand the chemistry of domestic violence trials. But the majority panel discovered the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation to ramp up the ability to find constitutional error. Obviously 13 years later this case will never be retried.
This case is, at best, a statutory error. Arguably the witness might have answered that the prosecutor threatened her, and the trial judge should have permitted the testimony. The prosecutor had rebutted this accusation in a pre trial declaration. Other than disallowing this single question the court allowed full cross examination of the witness. But to raise Sixth Amendment error that failure to allow a single question, even if relevant, could cause a court to issue a writ of habeas corpus on collateral hearing despite the rulings of the California Court of Appeal and the district court judge is ludicrous. The dissent thought so too.
Is it time to amend AEDPA?