(CN) – The 9th Circuit overturned the death sentence of an Arizona man convicted of attempted rape and first-degree murder. The presiding judge had acted improperly and demonstrated bias, the three-judge panel found.
In 1992, Kay Blanton, a librarian in the Phoenix suburb of Buckeye, was found in a pool of blood in the library. Her clothes were removed from the waist down and she had been stabbed 37 times.
Witnesses placed Richard Hurles at the scene and his nephew contacted police after Hurles dumped a bundle of bloody clothes on the side of the road while on his way to the Phoenix bus station. Hurles was arrested on a bus headed to Vegas.
Hurles, who had recently been released from prison, was reportedly drunk and on LSD at the time. He does not remember the murder. Hurles has been diagnosed by various doctors as borderline mentally retarded and learning disabled and was prescribed anti-psychotic drugs while in prison to ward of voices telling him to commit violent acts.
When the prosecution decided to seek the death penalty Hurles’ lawyer requested the appointment of co-counsel-a common practice for capital cases in the county. Judge Ruth Hilliard denied the request without explanation, prompting an appeal. In an unusual move, Hilliard appeared in the appeals court, represented by a lawyer from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
Hilliard’s appellate brief included several comments regarding the overwhelming evidence of Hurles’ guilt, saying the case was “very simple and straightforward.”
The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled it improper for judges to file pleadings in special actions solely to defend their actions because it places them in an adversarial role. Hilliard continued to preside over Hurles’ trial.
In 1994, a jury found Hurles guilty of all counts. Hilliard sentenced Hurles to death, a decision which was affirmed by the Arizona Supreme Court. She also presided over Hurles’ post-conviction relief claims, which were denied.
An Arizona federal court denied relief, but requested review by the 9th Circuit.
Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote for the majority, “Given the judge’s conduct in the special action proceeding, which the Arizona Court of Appeals specifically deemed improper, the potential for bias was unconstitutionally high.”
Further violations occurred when Hilliard was allowed to preside over claims regarding her own alleged misconduct during trial and sentencing, the court found.
“Hurles had no opportunity to challenge Judge Hilliard’s own claimed memory and understanding of events which had taken place years prior. This procedure is inherently inadequate to evaluate the merits of Petitioner’s claim. In fact, it is not a procedure at all,” Nelson wrote.
“These unique facts point to the overarching conclusion that Judge Hilliard held two incompatible roles: that of arbiter and that of adversary. Therefore, Judge Hilliard’s recusal was required in order to protect Hurles’s due process right to a fair trial.”
Judge Sandra Ikuta dissented, writing that the court had violated its AEDPA requirement to defer to a state court’s decision unless it is objectively unreasonable. Because no facts are in dispute, he wrote, the court must observe a higher level of deference.
“[H]ere the state court’s ruling was a legal one. There are no disputed material facts, and the only question is whether applying the Supreme Court’s objective rules to the undisputed facts reveals a due process violation.”
Assistant Attorney General Kent Cattani will likely request a rehearing by the full 9th Circuit.