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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

En Banc 9th Circuit Upholds Habeas Denial

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Ninth Circuit on Thursday upheld the denial of a convicted murderer's habeas petition in which he sought to overturn his conviction on the grounds he didn't carry out the killing himself.

Ronald Taylor was convicted of a 1987 murder in which two men entered a fast food restaurant with intent to rob it, and one of the men shot the owner dead.

A jury found Taylor guilty of first-degree felony murder, but before a sentence was imposed, he told his lawyer that while he was present during the robbery, but that someone else was the shooter, according to a 20-page opinion on behalf of the en banc Ninth Circuit panel.

Taylor filed a motion for a new trial, but his motion was denied and he was sentenced to life without parole.

The trial court eventually reduced his sentence to a term of 25-years-to-life as an aider and abettor, plus an additional six years because of his prior felony record.

After his resentencing, Taylor filed a habeas corpus petition, arguing that since the jury had already concluded he was the murderer, he could not possibly also be sentenced as an aider and abettor under the Sixth Amendment.

A federal judge denied Taylor petition, but a divided three-judge panel of the Circuit reversed the decision in Nov. 2014.

In doing so, the majority held that Taylor's right to a jury trial had been violated, and that the state could not continue to hold him in prison for aiding and abetting a crime, when the jury did not convicted him on those grounds.

But after rehearing the case, the en banc Circuit upheld the district court's denial of Taylor's petition.

Writing for the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Clifton said that "we disagree with Taylor's characterization of the jury's findings."

"In Taylor's view, because the jury could not convict him as the lookout for the special circumstance, it likewise had to reject that theory when determining his culpability for felony murder," Clifton said.

But "the jury was not required to unanimously choose a particular theory," he said.

"Taylor has never established his innocence as to the lookout theory, which is unsurprising given the strength of the evidence against him," Clifton said.

And "even if we accepted Taylor's argument that the jury relied solely on the theory that he was the shooter," he said, "his claim would still be unpersuasive."

"Taylor's contention that the jury wrongly convicted him of felony murder by accepting the factually incorrect shooter theory amounts to nothing more than a freestanding actual innocence claim," Clifton said.

In sum, he said, this case does not represent the kind of "extreme malfunction in a state criminal justice system" that may justify granting habeas relief.

"There is no malfunction of any kind, let alone an extreme one, when a state voluntarily moves to resentence a prisoner in response to that prisoner's belated confession," Clifton said. "In the eyes of the law, he is presumed legally guilty, not innocent, because he was convicted of felony murder after a fair trial.

"Taylor's evidence showing that he was not the shooter did not establish his innocence as to felony murder on the aiding and abetting theory, so he is not entitled to habeas relief regarding his conviction for felony murder."

Kurt Hermansen, who represented Taylor, said in an email to Courthouse News that he will be filing a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Because the jury's verdict is wrong, Mr. Taylor should get a new trial if the state thinks he knowingly helped the shooter," Hermansen said.

"But he won't get a new trial unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, which it rarely does given the small number of cases it hears each year."

The Calif. Attorney General's Office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on Thursday.

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