WASHINGTON (CN) - A new trial was improperly ordered for a man who claims he was forced into an 11-day string of robberies, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
From April 9 to April 17, 2003, three stores, a restaurant and the home of an elderly couple were the sites of armed robberies. At one of the crime scenes, an employee was shot in the hand.
Two of the robbers accepted plea deals, but a third accused co-conspirator, Joshua Frost, went to trial and argued that he had joined in the robberies only after the others had threatened to kill him and his family.
He told police that he had acted variously as lookout and getaway driver during the spree.
In addition to the duress defense, Frost argued that there was little evidence to prove that he had been a willing accomplice in the crime spree.
As the trial was wrapping up and Frost's attorney prepared to make his closing arguments, the trial judge determined that the jury should hear just one defense theory.
The duress defense required an admission of the "elements of the crime" before it could be brought up, the judge said.
Jurors ultimately convicted Frost of all charges except for one assault, and sentenced him to 55 years in prison. The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed, as did the Washington Supreme Court - but only narrowly. Despite finding that the trial court should have let Frost argue both theories, the justices deemed the error harmless.
Frost's subsequent petitions for federal habeas corpus were unsuccessful until the en banc 9th Circuit reversed 7-4 in April 2014.
The Supreme Court summarily reversed this decision Monday.
"Here, the Ninth Circuit held that the Washington Supreme Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law by failing to classify the trial court's restriction of closing argumentas structural error," the unsigned opinion states.
"That decision cannot stand," the justices continued. "Assuming for argument's sake that the trial court violated the Constitution, it was not clearly established that its mistake ranked as structural error. Most constitutional mistakes call for reversal only if the government cannot demonstrate harmlessness. Only the rare type of error - in general, one that '"infect[s] the entire trial process"' and '"necessarily render[s] [it] fundamentally unfair"' - requires automatic reversal. None of our cases clearly requires placing improper restriction of closing argument in this narrow category." (Emphasis in original.)
The high court slapped at the 9th Circuit majority for conflating circuit precedent with "clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court."
There was also no basis for the 9th Circuit to find that the trial judge had "forc[ed] defense counsel to concede his client's guilt," according to the ruling.
"Reasonable minds could disagree whether requiring the defense to choose between alternative theories amounts to requiring the defense to concede guilt," the justices wrote. "Still more could they disagree whether it amounts to eliminating the prosecution's burden of proof, shifting the burden to the defendant, or directing a verdict. In addition, even if the trial court's ruling somehow 'forced' the defense 'at least tacitly [to] admit the elements of the crimes,' the Ninth Circuit still would have no basis for ruling as it did. It goes much too far to suggest that our cases clearly establish that this supposed extraction of a 'taci[t] admi[ssion]' is structural error, when they classify the introduction of a coerced confession only as trial error."
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