Sanders v. Woodford, 01-99017.

Decision Date08 July 2004
Docket NumberNo. 01-99017.,01-99017.
Citation373 F.3d 1054
PartiesRonald L. SANDERS, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Jeanne S. WOODFORD, Warden, of California State Prison at San Quentin, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Nina Rivkind, Berkeley, CA, and Eric E. Jorstad, Faegre & Benson, LLP, Minneapolis, MN, for the Petitioner-Appellant.

Jane N. Kirkland, Deputy Attorney General, Sacramento, CA, for the Respondent-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California; Robert E. Coyle, Senior Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-92-05471-REC-P.

Before: D.W. NELSON, KLEINFELD and FISHER, Circuit Judges.

FISHER, Circuit Judge:

Convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Ronald Sanders appeals the district court's denial of his federal habeas petition, challenging both his conviction and his death sentence. We hold that the district court correctly rejected Sanders' claim that the jury that convicted him was drawn from a jury venire that unconstitutionally failed to reflect the number of Hispanics in Kern County, where he was tried. We conclude, however, that Sanders did not receive an individualized death sentence, as required by the Eighth Amendment. The California Supreme Court neither independently reweighed aggravating and mitigating sentencing factors after it had invalidated two of the aggravating factors, nor did it conduct an appropriate harmless-error analysis. We also conclude that this error was not harmless. We therefore reverse the district court's denial of Sanders' habeas petition as it relates to the imposition of the death penalty and remand with instructions to grant the petition if the state does not either provide a new penalty trial or replace the sentence of death with another legally appropriate punishment.


Sanders was found guilty of murdering of Janice Allen. According to the state, the murder arose out of an escalating dispute between Allen's boyfriend, Dale Boender, who was a drug dealer, and two of Boender's customers, Brenda Maxwell and her aunt Donna Thompson.

In 1980, Boender dealt cocaine around Bakersfield, California. Maxwell was one of his customers, as was Thompson. Boender had stopped selling cocaine to Maxwell because she owed him money. As for her aunt, she felt that Boender had "burned her" in a drug transaction. So — as Maxwell testified — she, Thompson, and Sanders hatched a plan to rob Boender and steal his cocaine. The plan was to lure Boender to Maxwell's home, have Sanders — whom Boender did not know — attack and rob Boender, and then have Sanders bind and "rob" Maxwell to make her look innocent of the set-up. Thompson would later "discover" and free both Boender and Maxwell.

On the morning of January 21, 1981, Maxwell called Boender, asking him to come to her house with a large amount of cocaine. Boender went to Maxwell's home accompanied by Allen. Upon arriving, Boender was attacked with a piece of a pool cue by a man whom he had never seen before, but whom Boender later identified as Ronald Sanders. The robbery, however, did not go according to plan. Boender gained the upper hand over Sanders and left with the drugs. By that time, Allen had already fled the scene.

Immediately after the botched robbery, Maxwell feared that Boender would realize he had been set up, and (according to Maxwell) Sanders also feared Boender could identify him. Maxwell, Thompson and Sanders went by the house of another person, John Cebreros, to enlist his help. The group then went to Thompson's house, where Maxwell called mutual friends of hers and Boender's to tell them she had been robbed and raped so as to enhance her claim that she had been victimized along with Boender.

The next Friday evening, after drinking wine and smoking marijuana with friends, Boender and Allen bought groceries and returned to their apartment. While they were preparing dinner, there was a knock at the door. Leaving Allen in the kitchen, Boender went to the front door and opened it, encountering Sanders and a man he later identified as Cebreros (whom Boender had not seen before). Sanders spun Boender around and pushed him to the floor, face down. Allen emerged from the kitchen and was also made to lie on the floor. Boender's glasses were ripped from his face and both he and Allen were bound and blindfolded.

Boender testified that the assailants asked for his cocaine and his money. He heard the assailants rummaging around his apartment. One of the assailants dragged him to what seemed like his bedroom and left the room. He heard more footsteps, muffled talking and more banging around the apartment. Boender heard one of the assailants say that he wanted to leave, but heard the other say that he wanted to stay. Boender could not identify the speaker who wanted to leave. Boender then heard someone approach, felt a blow to the head and recalled nothing further.

Later that night, Boender's roommates returned to the apartment and found it full of smoke from a pot left on the stove. They discovered Boender in his bedroom, lying in a pool of blood. After calling an ambulance, they noticed that the apartment was in disarray, there were spots of blood around and a bag of marijuana was missing. One roommate found Allen's body in another bedroom and called the police.

Both Boender and Allen had been bound by lengths of electrical cord cut from a vacuum cleaner. Allen sustained a fatal head wound from a heavy, blunt object which fractured her skull and lacerated her brain. Boender suffered a skull fracture but was conscious when the police arrived. Maxwell, Sanders and Cebreros were originally arrested, but Maxwell was released and granted immunity in return for her testimony.

Sanders and Cebreros were tried jointly. As the state acknowledged at trial, there was no direct evidence that determined whether Sanders or Cebreros had killed Allen. The most important witnesses for the prosecution were Boender and Maxwell; Boender identified Sanders from the robbery and Maxwell implicated Sanders in the plot to rob or murder Boender.

The defendants challenged Boender's identification and presented an alibi defense. Three defense witnesses testified that on the night of the murder, both Sanders and Cebreros were at the home of Cebreros' brother, Salvador, talking, playing chess and drinking beer. No physical evidence was found at the murder scene to link Sanders or Cebreros to the murder.

The first trial of the co-defendants resulted in a hung jury. On January 22, 1982, after a retrial, both Sanders and Cebreros were convicted of robbery, burglary, attempted murder of Boender and first degree murder for the death of Allen. For both defendants, the jury found to be true four of the "special circumstances" that are necessary under California law for the imposition of the death penalty after a murder conviction.

At the penalty phase, for reasons that are unclear from the record, the prosecution waived its right to seek the death penalty for Cebreros but decided to seek death for Sanders. Sanders instructed his counsel that he did not want to present any evidence or argument at the penalty phase, because (as he told the trial court at the time) he felt that both life in prison and death were "equally unacceptable" sentences. Apparently because of these instructions, Sanders' counsel did not pursue a thorough investigation into potential mitigating evidence. He presented no evidence of mitigating circumstances and gave no argument whatsoever to the jury at the penalty phase.

The state argued only one aggravating circumstance to the jury at the penalty phase — namely, that Sanders had committed five armed robberies in Orange County, California, in 1970, to which several witnesses testified. Sanders had been convicted for these robberies, pled guilty, served time in state prison and, in 1973, was granted parole, from which he had been removed in 1980. After hearing the prosecution's penalty evidence and argument, the jury returned a verdict of death after deliberating for about two hours over two days.

As discussed in more detail below, on automatic appeal, the California Supreme Court invalidated two of the four special circumstances found by the jury in convicting Sanders. The California Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in all other respects, and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari.

On December 20, 1993, Sanders filed his first federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the district court. The district court ordered Sanders to exhaust state remedies, which he proceeded to do. Sanders then filed an amended petition in the district court, which denied the petition in its entirety on August 24, 2001. We granted Sanders a certificate of appealability on several of his claims on July 30, 2002.


The district court had jurisdiction over Sanders' habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Because Sanders filed his habeas petition before the effective date of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, AEDPA does not apply. Alcala v. Woodford, 334 F.3d 862, 868 (9th Cir.2003). The district court's decision to deny relief is reviewed de novo. Clark v. Murphy, 331 F.3d 1062, 1067 (9th Cir.2003). Factual findings made by the district court are reviewed for clear error. Alcala, 334 F.3d at 868.


We first address Sanders' challenge to the imposition of the death penalty, and then discuss his challenge to his conviction.

I. Sentencing Error

In assessing whether a death sentence satisfies the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, a "primary concern ... has been that the sentencing decision be based on the facts and circumstances of the defendant, his background, and his crime." Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738, 748, ...

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