Alcala v. Woodford

Decision Date27 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-99006.,No. 01-99005.,01-99005.,01-99006.
Citation334 F.3d 862
PartiesRodney J. ALCALA, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Jeanne S. WOODFORD, Warden, of the California State Prison at San Quentin, Respondent-Appellant. Rodney J. Alcala, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Jeanne S. Woodford, Warden, of the California State Prison at San Quentin, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Adrianne S. Denault, Deputy Attorney General of the State of CA, Office of the Attorney General, San Diego, CA, for the respondent-appellant/cross-appellee.

Jerry L. Newton, Carmel, CA, Norman D. James, Redondo Beach, CA, for the petitioner-appellee/cross-appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; Stephen V. Wilson, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-94-01424-SVW.

Before D.W. NELSON, WARDLAW and FISHER, Circuit Judges.


D.W. NELSON, Senior Circuit Judge.

Jeanne Woodford, Warden of California's San Quentin State Prison ("California"), appeals the district court's conditional grant of habeas relief to petitioner Rodney J. Alcala. Alcala was sentenced to death following his conviction for first-degree murder. He is currently in prison.

California argues that the district court (1) incorrectly found that Alcala's trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective in presenting Alcala's alibi, (2) improperly found that the state trial court committed constitutional error in excluding the testimony of defense witness Dr. Ray London, (3) erred in concluding that the state trial court's denial of Alcala's request for an independent medical examination of prosecution witness Dana Crappa violated the Sixth Amendment, and (4) erroneously aggregated non-constitutional errors in its cumulative error analysis.

Alcala cross-appeals, challenging the district court's conclusions that (1) Alcala's constitutional rights were not violated when the state trial court admitted Crappa's prior testimony; (2) the exclusion of defense witnesses Tim Fallen, Gerald Crawford, and Raul Vasquez did not deny Alcala a fair trial; (3) the admission of the two sets of knives seized from Alcala's home did not deny him a fair trial; (4) trial counsel did not render ineffective assistance in failing to investigate and rebut crime scene evidence, failing to investigate and present evidence of the value of a pair of earrings found in Alcala's possession, and calling David Vogel as a witness without preparation; and (5) these failures to investigate were not constitutional deficiencies that could be included in the cumulative error analysis.

We conclude that Alcala's trial suffered from multiple constitutional errors that had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury's determination of guilt. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's conditional grant of Alcala's habeas petition.


This case concerns the 1979 death of twelve-year-old Robin Samsoe after her sudden disappearance in the area of Huntington Beach, California. Samsoe left the Huntington Beach apartment of her friend, Bridget Wilvert, just after 3:00 p.m. on June 20, 1979, to attend a ballet lesson. She never arrived at her dance class and none of her family or friends saw her alive again. Police discovered Samsoe's partially decomposed body in a remote mountain ravine about fifty miles away from her home almost two weeks after she disappeared. The state of her remains prevented the coroner from determining the cause of death or whether Samsoe suffered sexual molestation.

Police also found Samsoe's beach towel within a mile of where authorities recovered her remains. A criminalist testified that blood stains on the towel indicated "wipe marks," suggesting that someone had used the towel to wipe clean a bloody instrument such as a straight-edged weapon. Detectives also uncovered a knife caked with mud and covered in debris in the same general location as Samsoe's body; the criminalist found a very small spot of human blood on the knife. The test for human blood consumed the entire sample of blood, precluding more specific blood typing.

Various pieces of circumstantial evidence prompted police to arrest Alcala on July 24, 1979, a little more than one month after Samsoe's disappearance. Alcala was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. The California Supreme Court reversed this conviction based on the erroneous admission of Alcala's prior offenses and granted Alcala a new trial. People v. Alcala ("Alcala I"), 36 Cal.3d 604, 205 Cal.Rptr. 775, 685 P.2d 1126 (1984).

In 1986, nearly seven years after Samsoe disappeared, California retried Alcala before a different judge. It is this trial that is at issue before us. Again a jury convicted Alcala of first degree murder; he again was sentenced to death. The Supreme Court of California affirmed his conviction. People v. Alcala ("Alcala II"), 4 Cal.4th 742, 15 Cal.Rptr.2d 432, 842 P.2d 1192 (1992), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 877, 114 S.Ct. 215, 126 L.Ed.2d 171 (1993).

The prosecutor relied on various forms of circumstantial evidence in securing both of Alcala's convictions; no physical evidence directly connected him to Samsoe's death. This circumstantial evidence that Alcala murdered Samsoe included various eyewitness identifications. Two young women, Lorraine Werts and Patty Elmendorf, testified that on the afternoon of June 20, 1979, a man approached them at Sunset Beach, a few miles north of Huntington Beach, and asked if he could photograph them for a class contest. Werts consented. Police later discovered a slide photo of Werts in a Seattle storage locker that Alcala rented a few weeks after Samsoe disappeared. At trial, Elmendorf identified Alcala as the Sunset Beach photographer.

Samsoe and Wilvert also spent June 20, 1979, at the beach. They were at Huntington Beach at approximately 2:00 or 3:00 that afternoon when a man asked if he could take their pictures for a school contest. They agreed, and he took one photo each of Samsoe and Wilvert and one of the two of them together. As the man photographed them, an adult neighbor, Jackelyn Young, mistook Samsoe for her niece and approached the group. The man hurried away as Young got close. Wilvert and Young helped police prepare a composite sketch, which, according to the district court, bore a "moderate resemblance to Alcala." Wilvert never identified Alcala as the man at Huntington Beach. Although Young could not identify Alcala in a photographic lineup just one week after Samsoe's disappearance, she unhesitatingly identified him as the Huntington Beach photographer at trial seven years later. She testified that he was wearing a striped, collarless shirt, and at the first trial she also had stated, in addition to this description, that it was a long-sleeved shirt.

In addition, Richard Sillett, a city surveyor, contacted police after Samsoe's disappearance. He informed them that he, too, had been at Huntington Beach on June 20, 1979. After Alcala was arrested, Sillett identified him as the man he saw taking photographs there that day. Before this identification, Sillett had seen the composite sketch created with the help of Wilvert and Young, as well as pictures of Alcala in the local media and in a police interview. He testified that he was certain that the man had been wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and had the impression that the man had on cut-off shorts and sandals.

Two other young women, Joanne Murchland and Toni Esparza, testified at trial that they were at Huntington Beach the day before Samsoe's disappearance, when a man sought their permission to take photographs of them for an alleged bikini-of-the-month contest. The man left when the young women declined to give him their phone numbers. Both Murchland and Esparza told police that the composite drawing of the suspect in Samsoe's disappearance depicted the man who took their pictures. Only Murchland selected Alcala's photograph out of a photo lineup. At trial, however, both women positively identified Alcala as the man from the beach. Neither woman could remember what Alcala's car looked like when they testified at the second trial. A police officer who interviewed the women during the investigation testified that Murchland described Alcala's car as "an older red car" and Esparza said it was "an older bigger car," unlike Alcala's one-year-old blue Datsun F-10.

The prosecution also introduced evidence that Alcala straightened his hair three days after Samsoe's disappearance, cut his hair a few days after that, and planned to move away from the Southern California area. In defense, Alcala presented evidence that his girlfriend had been pressuring him to change his hairstyle consistently for about a month before he straightened his hair. He also offered testimony that he had purchased the necessary products for straightening his hair before Samsoe disappeared.

In the Seattle storage locker that Alcala rented after Samsoe disappeared, police found, in addition to the slide photo of Werts, a pair of gold-ball earrings that Samsoe's mother testified belonged to her. The defense rebutted with evidence that Alcala usually wore one earring that a co-worker identified as "exactly like" the ones police found in the locker.

Also at trial, jailhouse informant Freddie Williams testified that Alcala claimed to have kidnapped and killed Samsoe. The defense attempted to rebut this contention with the testimony of David Vogel, who also had been in jail with Williams. Vogel testified that Williams was desperate to testify against someone—anyone—in order to secure a deal with the prosecutor. Vogel significantly undermined his own credibility, however, when he admitted that he, too, once had told police that Alcala confessed to kidnapping and murdering Samsoe.

The testimony of prosecution witness Dana Crappa proved most damaging to...

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