(CN) - A man in prison for beating up his wife should have been allowed to cross-examine her at trial about claims that the Santa Barbara District Attorney threatened to send her to prison and leave her unborn child motherless if she changed her story, the 9th Circuit ruled.
The federal appeals court in Pasadena granted Adilia Juan Ortiz habeas corpus relief from his conviction and 26-year sentence on Thursday, reversing the Los Angeles District court and disagreeing with rulings by the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court.
Ortiz's wife, Miriam Ortiz, reported the alleged assault in 2001 to the Santa Barbara Police Department, showing up at the station with severe bruising to her mouth and left eye and a swollen knee. She was four months pregnant at the time.
She told investigators that her husband had punched her in the face and kicked her during an argument about money. After Santa Barbara Deputy District Attorney Joshua Lynn began to make a case against Ortiz, however, Miriam backed away from her allegations. Later she claimed that Lynn had threatened her through her aunt, who worked in the district attorney's office.
Lynn allegedly said that if Miriam didn't repeat at trial what she had told police that she would go to jail and her child would lose its mother.
At trial, the judge refused to allow Ortiz's attorney to cross-examine Miriam about the alleged threats. The jury found him guilty and, because he had four prior violent felony convictions, received a sentence of 26 years to life under California's Three Strikes Law.
Arguing that he had been denied due process, Ortiz appealed unsuccessfully to the California Court of Appeal, which found that the trial court had committed an error but that it had been harmless. The California Supreme Court later denied his petition for review, so he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson denied the petition, agreeing that the error was harmless.
Then Ortiz took his case to the 9th Circuit, where he finally found some sympathy on Thursday when a divided three-judge panel reversed the District Court and granted the petition, finding that the error had violated Ortiz's constitutional right of confrontation.
"Put simply, the trial court's curtailment was disproportionate to any conceivable valid purpose," wrote Judge Marsha Berzon for the court.
"With Miriam's credibility as a witness in doubt, the jury might also have questioned the accuracy of the statements she made to [police]."
"Having no reason to question why Miriam testified consistently with her initial statement to the police, the jury understandably credited the one version of events it was told," Berzon added. "Exposing Miriam's potential ulterior motives for parroting her initial statement to the police would have undermined the prosecution's case against Ortiz."
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