Cook v. Kernan

Decision Date21 January 2020
Docket NumberNo. 17-17257,17-17257
Citation948 F.3d 952
Parties Walter Joseph COOK III, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Scott KERNAN, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

CALLAHAN, Circuit Judge:

In 1994, a California jury convicted petitioner, Walter Joseph Cook, III, of three counts of first-degree murder, along with a special circumstance of multiple murders under California law, and sentenced him to death. Following his state habeas proceeding over a decade later, Cook’s sentence was reduced to life without the possibility of parole on the ground that he was intellectually disabled within the meaning of Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002). Cook subsequently sought federal habeas relief from his conviction on multiple grounds. The district court denied his habeas petition but granted a certificate of appealability as to four issues, only one of which we address in this opinion: whether the state’s reliance on Cook’s taped confession resulted in a prejudicial violation of his constitutional rights.1

Cook’s claim is subject to review under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Applying the AEDPA standard of review, we deny relief because the state habeas court could have reasonably concluded that Cook’s confession was not obtained in violation of his constitutional rights.

I.
A.

Cook’s convictions emerge from three murders that occurred over the span of four months in 1992 in East Palo Alto, California, where Cook was a local dealer of crack cocaine.2

The murder of Earnest Sadler occurred in the early morning of February 9, 1992. Around 4:00 a.m., police found Sadler’s body lying on the pavement in a residential neighborhood in East Palo Alto. Sadler’s head was severely battered, and three bloodstained and broken pieces of wooden board were found nearby. Sadler’s distinctive shoe prints were also visible on the damp soil in the front yard of a nearby house. When officers initially interviewed the eleven occupants of the residence, none admitted to having seen Sadler killed.

It was only months later that several occupants of the house and other witnesses admitted that they knew Cook had beaten Sadler to death. Shawnte Early (who had been Cook’s girlfriend at one point) told police that she saw Cook beating Sadler with a stick while Sadler was on the ground, and that she tried to intervene by coaxing Cook into her car and driving him around the corner, only to have Cook jump out of her car and resume his brutal attack on Sadler. At trial, Early repudiated her taped interview, which was played for the jury. Earnest Woodward, a resident of 2250 Menalto, testified that he woke up that night to see Cook engaged in a fistfight with Sadler, and Woodward told the combatants to move down the street. Velisha Sorooshian testified that she was sitting with Leonard Holt in her car, smoking a pipe of crack cocaine, near 2250 Menalto that night when Cook pulled alongside her and laughingly asked her to see if the man lying in the street was all right. Shannon Senegal (Cook’s cousin) testified that, the day after Sadler’s death, Cook told him he had "beat someone down last night" and identified his victim as Sadler. Woodward and Senegal were either in custody or serving prison sentences at the time of trial, and Sorooshian also had a criminal record.

The murder of Michael Bettencourt occurred sometime between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on February 14, 1992. A group of drug dealers and friends was gathered on a residential street in East Palo Alto, which was known as a site for illegal drug sales. Bettencourt, an outsider apparently wanting to buy drugs, arrived in the middle of the street in his gold Thunderbird car and was immediately surrounded by potential sellers, including Cook. Steven Sims (another seller) stuck his arm through the open driver-side window, but was jostled, causing him to drop his rock of cocaine inside Bettencourt’s car. When Sims opened the driver’s door to look for the fallen rock, he heard Cook—who was standing behind him, holding a nine-millimeter automatic pistol—tell Bettencourt to return the rock or pay for it. Sims then heard Cook yell, "Get back, get back," and when Sims stepped away, he saw Cook shoot Bettencourt once in the leg, pause, then unload the "clip in the nine," shooting Bettencourt repeatedly.

Once he stopped shooting, Cook jumped into Nathan Gardner’s car and rode for a few blocks before he got out. During the short ride, Gardner asked Cook why he shot Bettencourt, and Cook said it was because Bettencourt had tried to "gaffle"—meaning to steal from—him. The next day or so, when Sims encountered Cook again and asked about the shooting, Cook replied that Bettencourt "should have give[n] me my money or my rock back." Bettencourt was found by police, dead in his car, with the driver’s door open. The responding officer was unable to obtain information from anyone in the neighborhood about the shooting. Numerous shell casings were found in the street next to the car door, and a later forensic examination determined that eleven of the shell casings had come from a single gun.

The murder of Ronald Morris occurred on the afternoon of May 21, 1992. Cook, Senegal, and Lavert Branner were hurriedly leaving the parking lot of University Liquors in a Nova car (driven by Senegal) when they passed Sharoon Reed and three of her friends, who were also leaving the parking lot in their car. One of the men in the Nova told the women to "hurry up and move," and as the women slowed their car to let the Nova pass, Cook displayed a gun to them. The women followed the Nova at a distance as they headed to a birthday party on East O’Keefe Street in honor of their friend, Morris, also known as "Fat Man."

When the cars arrived on East O’Keefe, Morris had just parked his car and hailed down the Nova. Senegal made a U-turn and pulled the Nova next to Morris. As Senegal began talking to Morris, Cook (who was in the front passenger seat) suddenly leaned across Senegal and fired multiple shots at Morris, announcing, "I told you I will get your punk ass back." According to Senegal, Cook harbored a grudge against Morris based on an incident about a week earlier, when an armed Morris had mocked Cook for being unarmed. Reed testified that, from her viewpoint in the women’s car, she overheard Morris say, "Damn, you all strapped," as he looked into the Nova, and then saw him suddenly turn away just before multiple shots were fired.

According to a pathologist at trial, Morris had five bullet wounds in his heart and lungs, any one of which was "potentially fatal." Various nine-millimeter cartridge casings were recovered from the pavement where Morris fell, and were later compared to the nine-millimeter casings recovered from the Bettencourt murder. A San Mateo County Sheriff's criminalist testified that he could not determine with certainty whether both sets of casings had come from the same weapon, possibly because those from the earlier killing were aluminum while those from the later killing were brass. A day after the Morris murder, Cook threw his gun off the Dumbarton bridge and subsequently left the area.

B.

On June 26, 1992, Cook was arrested at his mother’s home in Lawton, Oklahoma, on a California warrant. He was transported to the local jail, where he was interviewed by East Palo Alto Police Sergeant Gregory Eatmon and Inspector Bruce Sabin of the San Mateo District Attorney’s Office. The interview lasted approximately seven hours, from around 7:00 p.m. that night to around 2:00 a.m. the next morning.

At the beginning of the interview, Inspector Sabin read Cook his Miranda rights and then asked, "Do you understand that Walter?" Cook responded, "Yeah." Sabin then asked, "Okay. Do you have any questions about that? That’s a yes or no," to which Cook responded, "No." After this confirmation from Cook, the investigators proceeded to question Cook about his background, his family, and, eventually, his whereabouts on the day of the Morris murder. During these first few hours of his videotaped interview, Cook generally appeared calm, even conversational at times, as he answered the investigators’ questions; at other times, he also seemed slightly confused, and his responses seemed unfocused and difficult to follow.3 When the investigators began to question Cook about Morris, Cook initially maintained that he was at his cousin’s house the night of the murder and only heard about it after the fact.

Almost two hours into the interview, around 8:57 p.m., the investigators shifted their approach to a more direct verbal confrontation about the Morris murder. They told Cook, "[E]verything you been giving us up till now has been bullshit," and claimed they had multiple witnesses, fingerprint evidence, and shell casings all pinning him to the murder. In an effort to persuade Cook to confess, the investigators made statements such as: "[N]ow’s the time for you to tell the truth son, the absolute truth"; "If Fat Man did something to you that made you shoot him, we want to hear that"; and, "[N]ot only you’re going to look like a killer, but you’re going to look like a liar on top of it." Cook responded to these statements with mostly one-word responses, eventually telling the investigators, "I really can’t say too much about it ‘cause um, I’m not going to endanger my family’s life." The investigators continued to insist that Cook "tell the truth," until Cook finally stated:

I don’t, anything I say would endanger my family life, I’d rather just, whatever’s going to happen to me is going to happen anyway. I’m either being ... you know what I’m saying, if you got all this evidence on me, either way, I’d say whatever, yes or no, yes or no, I’ll either get the electric chair, 25 to life, so, you know what I’m saying, it didn’t, it really shouldn’t even matter what I say.

At this point, Cook had...

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