Death-Row Inmate Loses High Court Habeas Case

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Split by a hair, the Supreme Court overturned habeas relief Thursday for a death-row prisoner who was convicted by a minority-free jury.
     Hector Ayala’s conviction in 1989 stemmed from the brutal attempted robbery four years earlier of a San Diego auto-body shop.
     Though Ayala had accused the prosecutor of striking jurors unfairly based on race or ethnicity during the months-long jury-selection process, the court disagreed.
     In the ensuing Batson hearing on Ayala’s challenges to the peremptory strikes, the prosecutor explained his rationale to the judge ex parte to protect his trial strategy.
     The California Supreme Court rejected Ayala’s constitutional claim on the merits and found that any potential error was harmless, but the 9th Circuit has consistently supported habeas relief for Ayala since 2012.
     In the latest version of its decision, denying the state a rehearing en banc, an indignant dissent condemns the 9th Circuit for performing an end-run around Supreme Court precedent.
     By using de-novo review with the claims of death-row inmates in the 2009 opinion Richter v. Hickman and the 2011 case Williams v. Cavazos, the 9th Circuit “brushed aside the deference we owe a state court’s adjudication of a petitioner’s claim under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA),” Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote, joined by six other dissenting colleagues.
     Both opinions were reversed based on the Supreme Court’s holding that “we must defer to a state court denial of a federal claim even if the state court issued only a summary denial, and even if the state court issued a reasoned opinion that did not expressly reject the federal claim,” she added.
     The Supreme Court took Ikuta’s bait and reversed 5-4 Thursday.
     “Ayala contends that his federal constitutional rights were violated when the trial court heard the prosecution’s justifications for its strikes outside the presence of the defense, but we find it unnecessary to decide that question,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “We assume for the sake of argument that Ayala’s federal rights were violated, but that does not necessarily mean that he is entitled to habeas relief. In the absence of ‘the rare type of error’ that requires automatic reversal, relief is appropriate only if the prosecution cannot demonstrate harmlessness. The Ninth Circuit did not hold – and Ayala does not now contend – that the error here falls into that narrow category, and therefore Ayala is entitled to relief only if the error was not harmless.”
     Alito called it indisputable that any federal error tied to the ex parte portion of reviewing the prosecution’s peremptory challenges was harmless.
     “Ayala therefore must show that the state court’s decision to reject his claim ‘was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement,” the majority opinion states.
     Ultimate Ayala failed to show that his exclusion from the prosecution’s explanation harmed him.
     “In this case, the conscientious trial judge determined that the strikes at issue were not based on race, and his judgment was entitled to great weight,” Alito wrote. “On appeal, five justices of the California Supreme Court carefully evaluated the record and found no basis to reverse. A Federal District Judge denied federal habeas relief, but a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court and found that the California Supreme Court had rendered a decision with which no fairminded jurist could agree.
     “For the reasons explained above, it was the Ninth Circuit that erred. The exclusion of Ayala’s attorney from part of the Batson hearing was harmless error. There is no basis for finding that Ayala suffered actual prejudice, and the decision of the California Supreme Court represented an entirely reasonable application of controlling precedent.”
     Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined a dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor that says “little doubt exists that counsel’s exclusion from Ayala’s Batson hearings substantially influenced the outcome.”
     Chief Justice Roberts joined the lead opinion in full as did Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
     The latter two also penned separate concurring opinions.
     Kennedy’s offers a striking objection, not on the merits of the case, but to the apparent confinement of Ayala in solitary for the past 20 to 25 years.
     “One hundred and twenty-five years ago, this court recognized that, even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and peculiar mark of infamy,'” Kennedy wrote.
     He added that scholarly discussion and other commentary have nevertheless failed to make “the condition in which prisoners are kept … a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest.”
     New “research still confirms what this court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” Kennedy added.
     “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required, within its proper jurisdiction and authority, to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them,” the dissent states before concluding with a quotation by Dostoyevsky.
     “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” that writer opined 150 years ago.
     Kennedy added: “There is truth to this in our own time.”
     The separate opinion by Thomas offers two brief sentences to undercut Kennedy’s plea.
     No matter how restrictive, “the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims, Ernesto Dominguez Mendez, Marcos Antonio Zamora, and Jose Luis Rositas, now rest,” Thomas wrote. “And, given that his victims were all 31 years of age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth.”

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