__ U.S. __ (2015), 13-1428, Davis v. Ayala

Docket Nº:13-1428
Citation:__ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 192 L.Ed.2d 323, 83 U.S.L.W. 4470, 25 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 371
Opinion Judge:ALITO, JUSTICE.
Party Name:Ron Davis, Acting Warden, Petitioner v. Hector Ayala
Attorney:Robin Urbanski argued the cause for petitioner. Anthony J. Dain argued the cause for respondent.
Judge Panel:ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., and THOMAS, J., filed concurring opinions. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, JUSTICE concurring. ...
Case Date:June 18, 2015
Court:United States Supreme Court
SUMMARY

During jury selection in Ayala’s murder trial, Ayala, who is Hispanic, objected that seven of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges were impermissibly race-based under Batson v. Kentucky. The judge permitted the prosecution to disclose its reasons for the strikes outside the presence of the defense and concluded that there were valid, race-neutral reasons for the strikes. Ayala was convicted... (see full summary)

 
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Page __

__ U.S. __ (2015)

135 S.Ct. 2187, 192 L.Ed.2d 323, 83 U.S.L.W. 4470, 25 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 371

Ron Davis, Acting Warden, Petitioner

v.

Hector Ayala

No. 13-1428

United States Supreme Court

June 18, 2015

[135 S.Ct. 2190] Argued March 3, 2015.

Editorial Note:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed official reporter.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

756 F.3d 656, reversed and remanded.

SYLLABUS

[135 S.Ct. 2191] [192 L.Ed.2d 326] During jury selection in respondent Ayala's murder trial, Ayala, who is Hispanic, objected that seven of the prosecution's peremptory challenges were impermissibly race-based under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69. The judge permitted the prosecution to disclose its reasons for the strikes outside the presence of the defense and concluded that the prosecution had valid, race-neutral reasons for the strikes. Ayala was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the California Supreme Court analyzed Ayala's challenge under both Batson and its state-law analogue, concluding that it was error, as a matter of state law, to exclude Ayala from the hearings. The court held, however, that the error was harmless under state law and that, if a federal error occurred, it too was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705. Ayala subsequently pressed his claims in federal court. There, the District Court held that even if the ex parte proceedings violated federal law, the state court's harmlessness finding could not be overturned because it was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit disagreed and granted Ayala habeas relief. The panel majority held that the ex parte proceedings violated Ayala's federal constitutional rights and that the error was not harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353, as to at least three of the seven prospective jurors.

Held : Any federal constitutional error that may have occurred by excluding Ayala's attorney from part of the Batson hearing was harmless. Pp. 9-29.

(a) Even assuming that Ayala's federal rights were violated, he is entitled to habeas relief only if the prosecution cannot demonstrate harmlessness. Glebe v. Frost, 574 U.S. __, __,135 S.Ct. 429, 190 L.Ed.2d 317, 320. Under Brecht, federal habeas petitioners " are not entitled to habeas relief based on trial error unless they can establish that it resulted in 'actual prejudice.'" 507 U.S., at 637, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353. Because Ayala seeks federal habeas corpus relief, he must meet the Brecht standard, but that does not mean, as the Ninth Circuit thought, that a state court's harmlessness determination has no significance under Brecht. The Brecht standard subsumes the requirements that § 2254(d) imposes when a federal habeas petitioner contests a state court's determination that a constitutional error was harmless under Chapman. Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 120, 127 S.Ct. 2321, 168 L.Ed.2d 16. But Brecht did not abrogate the limitation on federal habeas relief that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 plainly sets out. There is no dispute that the California Supreme Court held that any federal error was harmless under Chapman, and this decision was an " adjudication on the merits" of Ayala's claim. Accordingly, a federal court cannot grant [135 S.Ct. 2192] Ayala relief unless the state court's rejection of his claim was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Pp. 9-12.

[192 L.Ed.2d 327] (b) Any federal constitutional error was harmless with respect to all seven prospective jurors. Pp. 12-28.

(1) The prosecution stated that it struck Olanders D., an African-American man, because it was concerned that he could not impose the death penalty and because of the poor quality of his responses. As the trial court and State Supreme Court found, the record amply supports the prosecution's concerns, and Ayala cannot establish that the ex parte hearing prejudiced him. The Ninth Circuit misunderstood the role of a federal court in a habeas case. That role is not to conduct de novo review of factual findings and substitute the federal court's own opinions for the determination made on the scene by the trial judge. Pp. 14-18.

(2) The prosecution stated that it struck Gerardo O., a Hispanic man, because he had a poor grasp of English, his answers suggested an unwillingness to impose the death penalty, and he did not appear to get along with other jurors. Each of these reasons was amply supported by the record, and there is no basis for finding that the absence of defense counsel affected the trial judge's evaluation of the strike. Ayala cannot establish that the ex parte hearing actually prejudiced him or that no fairminded jurist could agree with the state court's application of Chapman. Once again, the Ninth Circuit's decision was based on a misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error. The inquiry is not whether the federal habeas court could definitively say that the defense could make no winning arguments, but whether the evidence in the record raised " grave doubt[s]" about whether the trial judge would have ruled differently. O'Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436, 115 S.Ct. 992, 130 L.Ed.2d 947. That standard was not met in this case. Pp. 18-24.

(3) The prosecution stated that it struck Robert M., a Hispanic man, because it was concerned that he could not impose the death penalty and because he had followed a controversial murder trial. Not only was the Ninth Circuit incorrect to suppose that the presence of Ayala's counsel at the hearing would have made a difference in the trial court's evaluation of the strike, but the Ninth Circuit failed to mention that defense counsel specifically addressed the issue during voir dire and reminded the judge that Robert M. also made several statements favorable to the death penalty. Thus, the trial judge heard counsel's arguments and concluded that the record supplied a legitimate basis for the prosecution's concern. That defense counsel did not have the opportunity to repeat that argument does not create grave doubt about whether the trial court would have decided the issue differently. Pp. 24-26.

(4) With regard to Ayala's Batson objection about the four remaining prospective jurors who were struck, he does not come close to establishing " actual prejudice" under Brecht or that no fairminded jurist could agree with the California Supreme Court's decision that excluding counsel was harmless. Pp. 26-28.

756 F.3d 656, reversed and remanded.

Robin Urbanski argued the cause for petitioner.

Anthony J. Dain argued the cause for respondent.

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., and THOMAS, J., filed concurring opinions. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined.

OPINION

[135 S.Ct. 2193] [192 L.Ed.2d 328] ALITO, JUSTICE.

A quarter-century after a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala's application for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the State to retry or release him. The Ninth Circuit's decision was based on the procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala's objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986), to some of the prosecution's peremptory challenges of prospective jurors. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy. On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.

The Ninth Circuit's decision was based on the misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error. Assuming without deciding that a federal constitutional error occurred, the error was harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353 (1993), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

I

A

Ayala's conviction resulted from the attempted robbery of an automobile body shop in San Diego, California, in April 1985. The prosecution charged Ayala with three counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of robbery, and three counts of attempted robbery. The prosecution also announced that it would seek the death penalty on the murder counts.

Jury selection lasted more than three months, and during this time the court and the parties interviewed the prospective jurors and then called back a subset for general voir dire. As part of the jury selection process, more than 200 potential jurors completed a 77-question, 17-page questionnaire. Potential jurors were then questioned in court regarding their ability to follow the law. Jurors who were not dismissed for cause were called back in groups for voir dire, and the parties exercised their peremptory challenges.

Each side was allowed 20 peremptories, and the prosecution used 18 of its allotment. It used seven peremptories to [135 S.Ct. 2194] strike all of the...

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