Chia v. Cambra

Decision Date04 March 2004
Docket NumberNo. 99-56361.,99-56361.
Citation360 F.3d 997
PartiesMichael Su CHIA, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Steven CAMBRA, Jr., Warden; Attorney General of the State of California, Respondents-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

James Dirks, Sacramento, California, for the petitioner-appellant.

Valerie A. Baker, Deputy Attorney General, State of California, Los Angeles, California, for the respondents-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; Ronald S.W. Lew, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-97-05199-RSWL.

Before: DOROTHY W. NELSON, MELVIN BRUNETTI and ALEX KOZINSKI, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge D.W. Nelson; Dissent by Judge Brunetti.

OPINION

D.W. NELSON, Senior Circuit Judge.

In 1988, two agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") were brutally murdered while executing an undercover sting operation in Monterey Park, California. Michael Su Chia ("Chia") was convicted in California Superior Court of being an accomplice to the murders and participating in a conspiracy to ambush, rob, and kill the agents. Chia, however, claimed repeatedly that, far from being a co-conspirator, he tried to talk one of the shooters, his good friend William Wei Wang ("Wang"), out of the plot. Wang confirmed to local and federal authorities that Chia had nothing to do with the conspiracy. The trial court, however, excluded these statements from being heard by the jury. Federal law as determined by the Supreme Court is clear that due process requires that the "minimum essentials of a fair trial" include a "fair opportunity to defend against the State's accusations" and the right "to be heard in [one's] defense." Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 294, 93 S.Ct. 1038, 35 L.Ed.2d 297 (1973). The trial court's decision to exclude reliable material evidence of Chia's innocence therefore constitutes an objectively unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. See Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75, 123 S.Ct. 1166, 155 L.Ed.2d 144 (2003). We reverse the district court's denial of Chia's petition for writ of habeas corpus and remand with instructions to grant the writ.

I. Factual and Procedural Background
A. The DEA Sting Operation

On the evening of February 4, 1988, DEA Agent Nadine Takeshta staked out the apartment of Frank Kow ("Kow"), a suspected drug dealer. At 10:10 p.m., Chia's black Mitsubishi was observed pulling up in front of Kow's apartment complex. Chia and his friend, Wang, got out of the Mitsubishi. Wang removed a handgun from the rear of the Mitsubishi and walked into the apartment complex. A few minutes later, Chia went up the complex stairs, paced on the landing, and then stood at the top of the stairs for several minutes until Wang came out. Wang and Chia walked back to the Mitsubishi together and drove away. Later that night, Wang and Chia were seen together at a local night club.

The next day, Kow called Paul Seema ("Seema"), an undercover DEA agent who was posing as an interested buyer, to schedule a meeting at 11:00 a.m. at Tiny Naylor's, a local restaurant. That same morning, DEA agents again observed Chia's black Mitsubishi at Kow's apartment, first at 10:30 a.m. and a second time at 11:30 a.m. Shortly after 11:30 a.m., other DEA agents observed the same Mitsubishi enter the parking lot of Tiny Naylor's, where the rendezvous between Kow and the undercover DEA agents was scheduled to take place. In the restaurant's parking lot, Chia was seen standing outside his Mitsubishi talking to Wang and another gentleman, Mike Chen ("Chen"). After speaking with Wang and Chen, Chia entered the restaurant. A few minutes later he reemerged from the restaurant, got back in his car, and was observed driving toward the restaurant's front entrance, where he conversed briefly with Kow before driving into a nearby alley. After a brief time, he again returned to Tiny Naylor's parking lot, parked for a few minutes, and then drove out again, before reentering the same parking lot a third time.

Meanwhile, three DEA agents posing as drug dealers, Seema, Jose Martinez ("Martinez"), and George Montoya ("Montoya"), got into a Volvo in the restaurant parking lot with Kow and drove off. The agents carried a bag containing $80,000 in cash with which to consummate the sting buy from Kow. Not knowing that the three "drug dealers" were actually DEA agents, Kow planned to rob them of the cash rather than sell them drugs. Kow's partners in the plot, Chen and Wang, followed behind in a red Nissan. After driving a short distance, Kow directed the agents to pull the Volvo over to the side of the road. Kow exited the Volvo, stood beside the car, and pointed a gun at the agents. The agents raised their hands. Chen and Wang, in the Nissan, pulled up behind the stopped Volvo. Wang got out of the Nissan, drew his gun, and joined Kow standing next to the Volvo with the three agents still inside. Chen remained behind the wheel of the Nissan, ready to make a quick getaway. After the agents handed the money to Wang and Kow, they opened fire on the agents. Agents Seema and Montoya were killed, and Agent Martinez was seriously wounded.

Kow and Wang fled in the Nissan with Chen behind the wheel. Other DEA agents who were in the area rushed to pursue the suspects. Kow fired on the pursuing agents from inside his Nissan. The agents rammed the Nissan with another vehicle and opened fire on the occupants of the disabled car. In the ensuing melee, Kow and Chen were killed, and Wang was seriously wounded. Shortly after the shootout, Chia was arrested nearby in his Mitsubishi. Three sets of handcuffs, three ski masks, and .45 caliber ammunition were discovered in his car. A local gun merchant testified that several weeks before the shootout Chia had entered his shop with a companion and that the companion had purchased .45 caliber ammunition.

B. The Hearsay Statements

Having survived the car chase and shootout, Wang made four separate statements to the authorities.

Wang's first statement (the "First Statement") was made to DEA agents while he was still severely wounded. Bleeding from nine gunshot wounds, Wang spoke with the agents while he was being wheeled into surgery in a hospital emergency room. The DEA agents took pains to ensure that Wang understood that he could die while in surgery. The agents believed that in case he did not survive surgery Wang's statements would be admissible as a dying declaration. Wang admitted that he, Chen, and Kow had planned to rob the "drug dealers," who they did not know were DEA agents. Wang also told the agents that nobody other than himself, Kow, and Chen were involved in the actual shooting of the murdered agents. Wang further admitted to shooting one of the agents three times with a revolver and providing the others with a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol.

Later that same afternoon, while recovering from surgery, Wang made his second statement (the "Second Statement") to a Pasadena police officer. Wang admitted that he had planned to rob the "drug dealers" in conjunction with Kow and Chen. Wang said that he shot two of the agents and provided details about the staging of the robbery, including how Chen was to follow the Volvo in his red Nissan.

Wang's third statement (the "Third Statement") was made to Pasadena police officers later that same evening. The interview was tape-recorded, and the entire tape was admitted into evidence as a prosecution exhibit and played for the jury at Wang's trial. During this interview, police officers asked Wang about Chia's involvement in the conspiracy. Wang had not previously mentioned Chia but explained that Chia told him not to go through with the plan. When pressed by the police, Wang reiterated that Chia was not involved in the plot and that he, along with Chen and Kow, had never intended to split any of the drugs or money that was stolen from the agents with Chia. In fact, Wang explained that Chia warned him that he should not participate in the plan because Chen and Kow could not be trusted. The police, not Wang, returned to the subject of Chia's involvement. Wang repeated a third time that Chia was not involved in the conspiracy, although he knew about it. Wang said that Chia had dropped him off at Kow's apartment and was only present later because he was concerned about Wang's safety.

Wang's fourth and final statement (the "Fourth Statement") was given to agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") two days after the shooting. Wang confessed that not only did he plan to rob the agents but that he knew in advance that Kow planned to murder them. Wang stated again that Chia told him not to go through with the plot. He also stated that when he spoke with Chia in the restaurant parking lot, he had told Chia to go home, but Chia remained because he was concerned that Wang could get hurt. In response to questions from the FBI, Wang said that the handcuffs found in Chia's car belonged to an individual named Johnny Lee and that he did not know anything about the ski masks.

Wang's statements to the FBI were consistent not only with his prior statements to law enforcement officers, but also with the independent observations of the DEA agents at the scene of the crime. Wang accurately described Chia taking him to Kow's apartment, where Wang delivered a pistol and ammunition to Kow and learned of the final plans for the robbery. He also accurately recounted that he went with Chia to a nightclub that evening, stayed over with him at a friend's house, and was dropped off by Chia at Kow's apartment the next morning.

At Chia's trial, the trial court excluded Wang's statements from being entered into evidence. Because the other two alleged members of the conspiracy — Kow and Chen — were killed by DEA agents in the Monterey Park shootout, the only other witness who could testify about...

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