Poyson v. Ryan, 879 F.3d 875 (9th Cir. 2018)

The Ninth Circuit, having concluded the year 2017 with its usual record of reversals in the Supreme Court, opened the new year with an incomprehensible decision in Poyson v. Ryan, 2018 WL 395 713 (9th Cir. ). In a case of brutal, vicious, and heinous murder, an Arizona state court jury in 2012 voted a guilty verdict and death penalty of defendant Poyson. The defendant appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court whose judges affirmed the conviction and sentence.

After the state supreme court denied a rehearing, the defendant filed a federal habeas petition in district court.  The court denied the petition, and Poyson appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  In 2013 the panel wrote an opinion, reheard it, and five years later wrote an amended opinion in a 2-1 decision. Obviously the  state sought certiorari.

The defendant suffered a difficult childhood and an equally difficult adult life with drugs and general disorder ending with murder of his girlfriend in abusive and disgusting conduct. Poyson had no defense at trial and offered only evidence of psychiatric disagreement. At the sentencing phase he submitted evidence unrelated to the act of crime.

On his appeal from the district court to the Ninth Circuit  the defendant contended his counsel was incompetent but the court panel denied that allegation. In addition, counsel for Poyson had submitted mitigating evidence of youthful turbulence, the absence of mental ability, and the influence of drugs. Although rejected by the jury, Arizona law requires the trial court to review mitigating evidence after trial and sentence, and the statute empowers the judiciary to change the verdict to life without parole.

Several years ago the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that a trial court reviewing the verdict and sentence must consider all mitigating  evidence whether it relates to commission of the crime or not. Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S 104 (1982). Labelled “causal nexus” several Arizona courts had not adopted this rule and its absence caused reversals. In Poyson the Ninth Circuit, unable to find any other reason to reverse the district court decision, held the Arizona Supreme Court used the causal nexus rule on the original appeal from state court and reversed the sentence. Reheard by the Ninth Circuit panel in its subsequently amended decision, decided the  Arizona Supreme Court did discuss the mitigating evidence but had held it had no mitigating value.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected federal habeas corpus decisions, unlike direct appeal, to “correct legal error” of state court decisions. Payson is a perfect illustration of this.  Seeking legal error futilely the panel finally finds an allegedly deceptive application of causal nexus.

A vicious murder, with no defense of innocence or reduced crime of manslaughter; no ineffective counsel; no erroneous jury instructions or jury misconduct; no voir dire errors; no prosecution misconduct; weak mitigating evidence (according to the state court); nothing for the usual Ninth Circuit reversals. A murder committed in 1996; trial in 2012; an appellate decision decided in 2013 and amended again in2018.

File certiorari .