(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the 9th Circuit improperly granted habeas relief to a gang member who was convicted as an accomplice to murder for his role in a fatal drive-by shooting at a high school. On a 6-3 vote, the justices rejected the notion that the jury had received ambiguous instructions.
Cesar Sarausad, a member of the 23rd Street Diablos, had been the driver in a drive-by shooting with a rival gang, the Bad Side Posse. As he drove slowly past the school, the front-seat passenger aimed a handgun at a group of students and fired, killing one and wounding another.
He, the shooter and another passenger were tried on murder and related charges, but Sarausad insisted that he hadn't known about the shooting. He claimed he expected at most a fistfight.
The prosecutor insisted Sarausad knew about the shooting, noting how he slowed down near the school and sped away when the deed was done. She claimed Sarausad was "in for a dime, in for a dollar."
The jury received instructions that directly quoted Washington's accomplice-liability law. Jurors convicted Sarausad of second-degree murder and related crimes.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco determined that the ambiguous jury instruction allowed jurors to convict Sarausad on the mistaken understanding of Washington law. They could have convicted him as an accomplice to murder on the theory that he was an accomplice in what he allegedly expected to be a fistfight, rather than a fatal shooting, the appeals court determined.
But the high court sided with the Washington courts, saying the jury instruction was unambiguous.
"The instruction parroted the language of the statute, requiring that an accomplice 'in the commission of the crime' take action 'with knowledge that it will promote or facilitate the commission of the crime,'" Justice Thomas wrote for the 6-3 majority.
Justices Souter, Stevens and Ginsburg dissented, saying the jury couldn't be expected to interpret the law with any clarity when the Washington courts "have produced a record of discordant positions on the meaning of the statute."
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.