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Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Elderly Wife Killer Loses Relief in Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CN) - The 9th Circuit went too far in ruling for a convicted wife killer because it felt that California prosecutors had "ambushed" him at trial, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Marvin Smith is a septuagenarian businessman serving 25 years to life for the 2005 murder of his wife.

Smith told police his wife of nearly 30 years had been bound and beaten to death with a fireplace tool by unknown burglars, but police later found jewelry allegedly taken from the scene in the trunk of his car, along with samples of the duct tape that was used to bind his late wife. Prosecutors in Smith's Orange County murder trial also showed evidence that Smith had told his former employee, Sam Matthews, that he would sooner kill his wife then allow her to divorce him, as she had threatened to do.

The defense argued that recent rotator-cuff surgery undergone by Smith, who was 70 at the time of the trial in 2007, would have prevented him from wielding the log roller. Smith also "insinuated" that Matthews, who owed him money, may have committed the murder, according to the ruling.

Just before the jury took up the case, prosecutors asked the trial court judge to tell the jury that they could also find Smith guilty if they believed he aided and abetted the murder rather than used the murder weapon himself. The defense objected without success, and the jury found Smith guilty of first-degree murder.

The California Court of Appeal later reversed the conviction, saying that the prosecution had failed to show the evidence of another killer that was required to justify the aiding-and-abetting jury instruction. The state attorney general took the issue to the California Supreme Court, which reversed the reversal and set up Smith's federal habeas corpus petition.

Smith argued that the aiding-and-abetting instruction had violated his right to due process under the U.S. Constitution, specifically his "constitutional right to adequate notice of the nature of the charges against him."

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright in Santa Ana granted the petition, and the 9th Circuit affirmed 3-0 last year.

"By requesting the jury instruction just before closing argument and without any prior indication that it was pursuing an aiding-and-abetting theory, the prosecution ambushed Smith and denied him a meaningful opportunity to prepare his defense," Judge Sidney Thomas wrote for the court.

From its opening statement to its final, the state argued that Smith had alone committed the crime, and introduced absolutely no evidence to the contrary, the panel found.

Nor did Smith's insinuation that Matthews may have committed the crime give rise to "aiding-and-abetting liability," the panel found.

"Contrary to the state's logic, implying that someone else killed the victim does not necessarily invoke a new question as to aiding and abetting," Thomas wrote. "Indeed, the defense theory was that Matthews had an independent motive to burglarize the house, and he knew facts about the murder scene unknown to others. However, pointing his finger at Matthews did not automatically implicate Smith as Matthews's accomplice, and it certainly did not show that he knew the prosecution was pursuing an aiding-and-abetting theory." (Emphasis in original.)

The Supreme Court summarily reversed Monday, finding that the habeas relief violated something that it has emphasized "time and again."

"When a state prisoner seeks federal habeas relief on the ground that a state court, in adjudicating a claim on the merits, misapplied federal law, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court's decision was 'contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly estab­lished federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,'" the unsigned opinion states. "We have emphasized, time and again, that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is 'clearly established.'"

In this case, the 9th Circuit could have affirmed only if the Supreme Court's cases "clearly establish that a defendant, once adequately apprised of" the possibility of conviction on an aiding-and-abetting theory, "can nevertheless be deprived of adequate notice by a prosecutorial decision to focus on another theory of liability at trial."

"The Ninth Circuit pointed to no case of ours holding as much," the seven-page opinion states. "Instead, the Court of Ap­peals cited three older cases that stand for nothing more than the general proposition that a defendant must have adequate notice of the charges against him."

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