280 F.2d 727 (9th Cir. 1960), 16590, Chavez v. Dickson

Docket Nº:16590, 16622.
Citation:280 F.2d 727
Party Name:Manuel Joe CHAVEZ, Appellant, v. Fred R. DICKSON, Warden, California State Prison at San Quentin, California, Appellee. Clyde BATES, Appellant, v. Fred R. DICKSON, Warden, California State Prison at San Quentin, California, Appellee.
Case Date:June 16, 1960
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 727

280 F.2d 727 (9th Cir. 1960)

Manuel Joe CHAVEZ, Appellant,

v.

Fred R. DICKSON, Warden, California State Prison at San Quentin, California, Appellee.

Clyde BATES, Appellant,

v.

Fred R. DICKSON, Warden, California State Prison at San Quentin, California, Appellee.

Nos. 16590, 16622.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

June 16, 1960

Rehearing Denied Aug. 17, 1960.

Page 728

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 729

Gladstein, Andersen, Leonard & Sibbett, Richard Gladstein, Norman Leonard, San Francisco, Cal., for appellant Chavez.

Ruth Jacobs, San Francisco, Cal., for appellant Bates.

Stanley Mosk, Atty. Gen. for the State of California, Arlo E. Smith, Deputy Atty. Gen. of the State of California, for appellee.

Before MAGRUDER, HAMLEY and KOELSCH, Circuit Judges.

HAMLEY, Circuit Judge.

Manuel Joe Chavez and Clyde Bates, state prisoners under sentence of death, appeal from district court orders denying their applications for habeas corpus. Separate orders of denial were entered and separate appeals have been taken. The district court however, considered the applications together, and we will do likewise on these appeals. 1

Appellants were jointly tried in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County on six counts charging felony-murder in violation of California Penal Code, § 189, and one count charging wilful and malicious burning of a building not a parcel of a dwelling, contrary to California Penal Code, § 448a. Each was convicted on all counts, the convictions for violation of section 189 being designated by the jury as first degree murder. The convictions were thereafter affirmed by the California Supreme Court. People v. Chavez, 50 Cal.2d 778, 329 P.2d 907, certiorari denied, Chavez v. California, 358 U.S. 946, 79 S.Ct. 356, 3 L.Ed.2d 353.

Page 730

The charges and convictions grew out of an occurrence on April 4, 1957, when gasoline and lighted matches were thrown on the floor of the Mecca bar in Los Angeles. Six persons died in the resulting explosion and fire. The death sentences were imposed as a result of the convictions of first degree murder. One Manuel Hernandez was tried at the same time and convicted on similar counts. His sentence, however, was fixed at life imprisonment.

On these appeals it is contended that the district court erred in holding that each of the asserted grounds for relief set out in the respective applications for writs of habeas corpus is without merit. It is also argued with respect to each such ground, except the first, that the district court erred in refusing to examine the state court record before ruling on the applications.

In this opinion we will discuss, seriatim, the grounds for relief advanced in the applications. As to each such ground we will first consider whether the district court should have examined the record before ruling on such asserted ground. If it is concluded that such an examination was not required, we will then consider whether the trial court erred in holding such asserted ground for relief to be without merit.

The first asserted ground for relief set out in the applications is that California's construction of the Penal Code sections under which appellants were convicted had the effect in this case of depriving them of certain federally protected rights.

Appellants were indicted and convicted for violations of California Penal Code, 189 and 448a, in that each of them was responsible for setting fire to a bar in Los Angeles, as a result of which six persons perished. Section 189 defines as murder in the first degree all murder which is perpetrated by means of certain specified acts, including 'arson.' Section 448a makes it a crime for a person to wilfully and maliciously burn any building not a parcel of a dwelling. The word 'arson' does not appear in this section. In section 447a, however, it is provided that any person who wilfully and maliciously sets fire to 'any dwelling house, or any kitchen, shop, barn, stable, or other outhouse that is parcel thereof, or belonging to or adjoining thereto * * * shall be guilty of arson.'

In their appeals to the California Supreme Court appellants contended that only the offense proscribed by section 447a constitutes arson. Hence, it was argued, section 448a set forth a different offense which is not arson, and accordingly a violation of the latter section would not be an act of 'arson' within the meaning of section 189 defining murder in the first degree. It was further pointed out that appellants could not have been found guilty of arson as defined in section 447a, since the Mecca bar was not a 'dwelling' or any 'outhouse that is a parcel thereof, or belonging to or adjoining thereto.'

The California Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that a violation of section 448a would be 'arson' within the meaning of section 189 defining murder in the first degree. People v. Chavez, supra, 50 Cal.2d at pages 787-788, 329 P.2d 907. It is this construction of sections 189 and 448a which, according to appellants, has deprived them of certain federally protected rights.

As before noted, appellants do not here contend that the district court was required to examine the record of the state court proceeding before passing upon this first ground for relief asserted in the applications. 2 We therefore turn at once to a consideration of the argument that California's interpretation of sections 189 and 448a in this case has deprived appellants of certain constitutional rights.

First, it is argued, the construction which the California Supreme Court

Page 731

has placed upon these sections is 'arbitrary and unreasonable.' The contention here is that the meaning which that court has attached to the word 'arson' as used in section 189 finds no support in either the common law or in the statutory law of California. Appellants disavow any contention that for this asserted reason we ought to reconstrue section 189 to mean something different than the California court says that it means. 3 They nevertheless urge that the California construction of the statute is so unfounded that the result has been to deprive them of due process of law.

It is difficult to perceive how this court can consider whether the state construction of the statute is arbitrary and unreasonable without in effect reviewing the correctness of the state court's interpretation of section 189. This, as noted in footnote 3, is not our function.

In any event the decision in People v. Chavez, supra, was reached with due regard to relevant considerations and materials. That court, speaking unanimously, based its interpretation of the statute upon its interpretation of the legislative intent. The legislative intent was determined by analyzing the history of state legislation in this field and considering the interplay of other existing statutes. The court also cited its 1947 opinion in Ex parte Bramble, 31 C.2d 43, 187 P.2d 411, and quoted supporting language from the latter opinion. This is enough to convince us that whether right or wrong the interpretation placed upon section 189 in People v. Chavez, supra, was not arbitrary and unreasonable in any sense that could possibly have constitutional significance.

Under their second and third arguments based on the statutory question it is contended that the construction placed on section 189 whereby the term 'arson' as therein used was held to embrace the crime defined in section 448a was announced for the first time in the decision handed down in People v. Chavez, supra, after appellants had been convicted. Thus, it is asserted, appellants did not at the time of the incident at the Mecca bar have notice that section 189 would be so construed. The result is, appellants argue, that California has increased the penalty to which appellants were actually subject when the alleged crimes were committed.

These arguments are necessarily predicated on the assumption that section 189 meant one thing from the date of its enactment to the date of the decision in People v. Chavez, supra, and something else thereafter. But to accept this view is to reject the interpretation which the California Supreme Court has placed upon the statute. That court undertook to construe the statute as of the date of enactment. We are bound to accept that construction as of that date. Hence, we are not free to hold that section 189 when enacted meant something different than the California court found it to mean in People v. Chavez. It follows that no ex post facto question could possibly arise. 4

Appellant's fourth argument on this branch of the case is that California's construction of sections 189 and 448a resulted in appellants' conviction upon a charge not made against them. The point sought to be made is that appellants were really convicted of violations

Page 732

of section 447a, since this is the only statute relating to the setting of fires which uses the word 'arson.'

Appellants were not charged with or convicted of violations of section 447a, but rather of section 448a. Appellants' contention to the contrary is not based on the wording of the indictment or upon the nature of the evidence. 5 The basis of the contention is that only a violation of section 447a could be 'arson' as defined in section 189. The California Supreme Court has held to the contrary, and we are bound by that construction.

This brings us to the fifth and final argument advanced by appellants with regard to the question of statutory construction. It is contended that the construction of the term 'arson' as used in section 189 to include the crime defined in section 448a renders section 189 so vague and indefinite as to deprive appellants of due process of law.

The...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP