Irons v. Carey

Decision Date06 March 2007
Docket NumberNo. 05-15275.,05-15275.
Citation479 F.3d 658
PartiesCarl Merton IRONS, II, Petitioner-Appellee, U.S. Attorney General, Intervenor, v. Tom L. CAREY, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General of the State of California, Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Stephen P. Acquisto, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, & Pamela B. Hooley, Deputy Attorney General, for the respondent-appellant.

Quin Denvir, Federal Defender, & Ann C. McClintock, Assistant Federal Defender, for the petitioner-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California; Lawrence K. Karlton, Senior District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-04-00220-LKK.


REINHARDT, Circuit Judge.

The state appeals the district court's grant of habeas corpus to Carl Merton Irons II. The district court granted relief after finding that there was insufficient evidence in the record to support the California Board of Prison Term's decision to deem Irons ineligible for parole in 2001. In light of the California Supreme Court's decision in In re Dannenberg, 34 Cal.4th 1061, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 (Cal.2005), and our decision in Sass v. California Board of Prison Terms, 461 F.3d 1123 (9th Cir.2006), both decided after the district court issued its order in this case, we reverse.


In 1985, Irons was convicted of second degree murder in the death of his former housemate and sentenced to seventeen years to life in prison. At the time of the offense, Irons was living in the home of a couple, with another tenant, John Nicholson. The couple suspected that Nicholson was dealing drugs and was stealing from them. Irons shared their suspicions. He confronted Nicholson and an angry argument ensued in which Nicholson denied responsibility for the thefts. Irons went to his room, retrieved his gun, and then went to Nicholson's room where he fired 12 rounds into Nicholson and, after Nicholson complained that he was in pain, stabbed him twice in the back. He then wrapped Nicholson's body in a sleeping bag and left it in the room for the ten days it took him to procure a car. Irons then took the body to the coast, weighed it down, and disposed of it in the ocean.

When the police found the body, their investigation led them to the house where Irons and the victim had lived. Forensic analysis showed that Nicholson had died on the premises, and the police decided to arrest the owner of the house. Irons intervened, explained to the police that they had the wrong person, and confessed to the killing. He was subsequently convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to seventeen years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Prior to this conviction, Irons had no criminal record.

At the time of his 2001 parole hearing, Irons had been incarcerated for sixteen years. Throughout his confinement, his conduct has been exemplary. From 1988 to the present he has maintained "Medium A" custody status, indicating that prison officials see him as a low threat. He has not engaged in further acts of violence, nor has he received any C.D.C. 128A written disciplinary charges.

Irons suffers no mental health problems, and has received positive evaluations from the psychologists and counselors who have examined and treated him. He has been extremely industrious while in prison maintaining average to exceptional job performance in every position he has occupied. He has also received certificates of completion in several vocational training programs, and has participated in numerous self-help, substance abuse treatment, violence prevention and stress management programs. Even members of the Board have commented that Irons has "programmed in an exemplary manner in all areas."

Irons also has solid plans for the future. He will live with his mother when he is released and he has a standing job offer from a friend who owns a video production business. He also has the support of Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, the prosecutor assigned to Irons' case from the outset.

These facts notwithstanding, the Board determined that Irons was unsuitable for parole in 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2001.1 The Board's decision in 2001, the decision at issue in this case, was based on three factors. "First and foremost was the commitment offense itself." The Board found that Irons' crime was "carried out in an especially cruel and callous manner." It further noted his motivation for the killing was trivial and that Irons was using drugs around the time of the offense. Second, the Board stated that Irons "needs therapy" and recommended "continued participation in self-help programming." Finally, the presiding commissioner stated, "I think you were asked by your counsel whether a situation like this would happen again, whether you would kill somebody. And I think you said, I don't think so . . . [T]hat's not a very convincing reply."

After filing an unsuccessful administrative appeal challenging the Board's decision, Irons filed a state habeas petition in Marin County Superior Court alleging that the Board's 2001 unsuitability determination violated his due process rights. The Superior Court denied the petition, finding that the Board's decision was supported by "some evidence" and thus did not violate due process. Irons appealed, and the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court issued summary denials.

He then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, and in January of 2005 the district court adopted the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations granting the petition. The district court concluded that the state court unreasonably applied clearly established Supreme Court precedent because the board's decision was without evidentiary support, and further held that the Board's continued reliance on Irons' commitment offense and prior conduct to deem him unsuitable for parole violated Irons' right to due process.

On appeal, the state argues that the district court erred in concluding that the Board's 2001 decision was not supported by "some evidence," and that the district court failed to afford the California state court decision upholding the Board's unsuitability determination the proper degree of deference required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).


We review the district court's decision to grant Irons' petition for habeas corpus de novo. Leavitt v. Arave, 371 F.3d 663, 668 (9th Cir.2004). Because Irons filed his petition after the effective date of AEDPA, his petition for habeas corpus may be granted only if he demonstrates that the state court decision denying relief was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).


California Penal Code section 3041 vests Irons and all other California prisoners whose sentences provide for the possibility of parole with a constitutionally protected liberty interest in the receipt of a parole release date, a liberty interest that is protected by the procedural safeguards of the Due Process Clause. Sass, 461 F.3d at 1128; Biggs, 334 F.3d at 914; McQuillion v. Duncan, 306 F.3d 895, 903 (9th Cir.2002); see also Bd. of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369, 377-78, 107 S.Ct. 2415, 96 L.Ed.2d 303 (1987) (quoting Greenholtz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal & Corr. Complex, 442 U.S. 1, 12, 99 S.Ct. 2100, 60 L.Ed.2d 668 (1979)). The Supreme Court has clearly established that a parole board's decision deprives a prisoner of due process with respect to this interest if the board's decision is not supported by "some evidence in the record," Sass, 461 F.3d at 1128-29 (citing Superintendent v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 457, 105 S.Ct. 2768, 86 L.Ed.2d 356 (1985)); see also Biggs, 334 F.3d at 915 (citing McQuillion, 306 F.3d at 904), or is "otherwise arbitrary," Hill, 472 U.S. at 457, 105 S.Ct. 2768.2 When we assess whether a state parole board's suitability determination was supported by "some evidence" in a habeas case, our analysis is framed by the statutes and regulations governing parole suitability determinations in the relevant state. See Biggs, 334 F.3d at 915. Accordingly, here we must look to California law to determine the findings that are necessary to deem a prisoner unsuitable for parole, and then must review the record in order to determine whether the state court decision holding that these findings were supported by "some evidence" in Irons' case constituted an unreasonable application of the "some evidence" principle articulated in Hill, 472 U.S. at 454, 105 S.Ct. 2768.

Under California law, prisoners serving an indeterminate sentence for second degree murder "may serve up to life in prison, but [] become eligible for parole consideration after serving minimum terms of confinement." Dannenberg, 34 Cal.4th at 1078, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783. Although the Board must "normally set a parole release date" before the minimum term has been served, id., an inmate "`shall be found unsuitable for parole and denied parole if, in the judgment of the [Board,] the prisoner will pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison,'" id. at 1080, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417, 104 P.3d 783 (quoting Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15 § 2402(a)).3

The Board must determine whether a prisoner is presently too dangerous to be deemed suitable for parole based on the "circumstances tending to show unsuitability" and the "circumstances tending to show suitability" set forth in Cal.Code. Regs., tit. 15 § 2402(c)-(d).4 A prisoner's commitment offense may constitute a circumstance tending to show that a prisoner is presently too dangerous to be found suitable for parole, but the denial...

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