New Death-Penalty Case Picked Up by Supremes | Courthouse News Service
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New Death-Penalty Case Picked Up by Supremes

WASHINGTON (CN) - California persuaded the Supreme Court on Monday to decide whether it should retry a death-row prisoner who was convicted by a minority-free jury.

The 9th Circuit first awarded Hector Ayala such relief in 2012 and has amended that opinion to the same effect twice more in as many years.

Its latest version, published this past February, clocks in at 137 pages with the addition of a new dissent to the 9th Circuit's denial of a rehearing en banc.

Seven judges joined Judge Sandra Ikuta in saying that the 9th Circuit had done 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)," Ikuta wrote.

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 opinion gives a "straightforward" recitation of the case at hand.

On trial for multiple murders, Ayala argued that the California prosecutor was striking jurors unfairly based on race or ethnicity.

After hearing the prosecutor's explanation ex parte, to protect his trial strategy, the trial court disagreed.

The California Supreme Court rejected Ayala's constitutional claim on the merits and found that any potential error was harmless.

Dissenting 9th Circuit judges said the only issue before their court was whether the state court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent in adjudicating Ayala's claim.

"Contrary to Supreme Court precedent, the plain language of AEDPA, and the decisions of our sister circuits, the panel majority here reasons that no AEDPA deference is owed to the state court's opinion," Ikuta wrote.

The Supreme Court took up the case without any comment Monday, as is its custom. It noted only that it wanted the parties to brief and argue "whether the court of appeals properly applied the standard articulated in Brecht v. Abrahamson," a case the court decided in 1993.

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