Watson v. Estelle, No. 87-6599

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore GOODWIN and HALL; CYNTHIA HOLCOMB HALL; MARQUEZ
Citation886 F.2d 1093
PartiesCharles Denton WATSON, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Wayne ESTELLE, Respondent-Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 87-6599
Decision Date21 September 1989

Page 1093

886 F.2d 1093
Charles Denton WATSON, Petitioner-Appellee,
v.
Wayne ESTELLE, Respondent-Appellant.
No. 87-6599.
United States Court of Appeals,
Ninth Circuit.
Argued and Submitted May 6, 1988.
Opinion Oct. 6, 1988 Vacated.
Decided Sept. 21, 1989.

Carol S. Frederick, Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen., Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent-appellant.

Donald Specter, San Quentin Prison Law Office, San Quentin, Cal., for petitioner-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Before GOODWIN and HALL, Circuit Judges, and MARQUEZ, * District Judge.

CYNTHIA HOLCOMB HALL, Circuit Judge:

We recalled the mandate from our judgment in Watson v. Estelle, 859 F.2d 105 (9th Cir.1988), pursuant to our power to prevent injustice and to protect the integrity of our processes. See Zipfel v. Halliburton Co., 861 F.2d 565, 567 (9th Cir.1988); Aerojet-General Corp. v. American

Page 1094

Arbitration Ass'n, 478 F.2d 248, 254 (9th Cir.1973). We vacate that opinion and enter this one in its stead.

Petitioner-appellee Charles Denton Watson sought a writ of habeas corpus directing respondent-appellant Wayne Estelle to provide him with annual parole hearings. The district court granted the writ on the grounds that Watson was entitled to annual parole hearings under the ex post facto clause of the United States Constitution. See Art. I, Sec. 10, cl. 1 ("No State shall ... pass any ... ex post facto Law"). Estelle appeals this ruling.

Watson and a number of female followers of Charles Manson committed seven horrific murders in August, 1969. At the time he committed these crimes, Watson was subject to punishment by death, and indeed he was sentenced to death in 1971. The California Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty the following year, see People v. Anderson, 6 Cal.3d 628, 100 Cal.Rptr. 152, 493 P.2d 880 (1972), however, and Watson's sentence was reduced to life imprisonment under the Indeterminate Sentence Law (ISL). At the time Watson committed the seven murders, a defendant sentenced to life imprisonment in California had no statutory guarantee as to the frequency with which he would be considered for parole and the case law established a right only to periodic review. See In re Jackson, 39 Cal.3d 464, 469-70, 216 Cal.Rptr. 760, 703 P.2d 100 (1985) (citing In re Schoengarth, 66 Cal.2d 295, 57 Cal.Rptr. 600, 425 P.2d 200 (1967)).

Despite the fact that at the time he committed his crimes he was subject to the death penalty and had no right to annual parole hearings in the event of a life sentence, Watson argues that his current sentence of life imprisonment with guaranteed parole hearings every three years violates the ex post facto clause of the United States Constitution. The circumstances giving rise to this claim took place in 1977, about eight years after Watson committed his crimes.

On July 1, 1977, the California Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL), Cal. Penal Code Sec. 3041.5 (West Supp.1978), took effect. See Jackson, 39 Cal.3d at 467, 216 Cal.Rptr. 760, 703 P.2d 100. The DSL provided that all prisoners then serving prison sentences for whom a parole release date had not been set were entitled to annual parole suitability hearings. Cal. Penal Code Sec. 3041.5(b)(2). Thus, Watson was entitled to annual parole hearings under the DSL. However, California amended section 3041.5(b)(2) in 1981 to provide the following exception to the requirement that the California Board of Prison Terms (the Board) hold annual parole suitability hearings:

The board shall hear each case annually thereafter, except the board may schedule the next hearing no later than three years after any hearing at which parole is denied if the prisoner has been convicted ... of more than one offense which involves the taking of a life, and the board finds that it is not reasonable to expect that parole would be granted at a hearing during the following years and states the bases for the finding.

Cal. Penal Code Sec. 3041.5(b)(2) (West 1982), now codified at section 3041.5(b)(2)(B) [hereinafter section 3041.5(b)(2) ].

This lawsuit springs from the Board's decision in 1983 to delay Watson's parole suitability hearings for the maximum three-year period authorized by the 1981 amendment to section 3041.5(b)(2). After exhausting state remedies, Watson filed this petition for habeas corpus arguing that the Board's failure to provide him with the annual parole hearings provided for by the original DSL enacted in 1977 violated the ex post facto clause. We review the district court's decision to grant Watson's petition de novo. See Carter v. McCarthy, 806 F.2d 1373, 1375 (9th Cir.1986), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 870; 108 S.Ct. 198, 98 L.Ed.2d 149 (1987).

"[T]wo critical elements must be present for a criminal or penal law to be ex post facto: it must be retrospective, that is, it must apply to events occurring before its enactment, and it must disadvantage the offender affected by it." Weaver v. Graham, 450 U.S. 24, 29, 101 S.Ct. 960, 964, 67 L.Ed.2d 17 (1981). In this case, the 1981

Page 1095

amendment to the DSL is retrospective because it establishes a timetable for parole eligibility hearings for defendants like Watson who committed their crimes before its enactment. Thus, the only question in this case is whether Watson is disadvantaged by the 1981 amendment.

In the Jackson case, the California Supreme Court rejected an ex post facto challenge to a 1982 amendment to the DSL, which like the 1981 amendment, permits the board to delay annual parole hearings. 1 The court held that "the 1982 amendment is a procedural change outside the purview of the ex post facto clause." Jackson, 39 Cal.3d at 474-73, 216 Cal.Rptr. 760, 703 P.2d 100. However, the Jackson court first rejected the state's argument that "since [the petitioner] was not statutorily entitled to periodic parole review when he committed his offense, any subsequent reduction in the frequency of such review does not operate to his disadvantage." See id. at 469, 216 Cal.Rptr. 760, 703 P.2d 100.

In this case, the magistrate's final report and recommendation also rejected respondent's argument that "petitioner has not been subjected to an ex post facto law, in that his punishment is not greater than prescribed at the time of the crime/sentence." 2 The state contests this conclusion on appeal, arguing that Watson's ex post facto challenge must fail because "[t]here was no legal requirement that petitioner be given annual parole consideration hearings at either the time he committed the offenses of which he was convicted or the time that he was received by the California Department of Correction."

Initially, it is clear that the California Supreme Court's rejection of respondent's position does not bind this court. "Whether a retrospective state criminal statute ameliorates or worsens conditions imposed by its predecessor is a federal question." Weaver, 450 U.S. at 33, 101 S.Ct. at 966; see also Lindsey v. Washington, 301 U.S. 397, 400, 57 S.Ct. 797, 798, 81 L.Ed. 1182 (1937); Chatman v. Marquez, 754 F.2d 1531, 1535 (9th Cir.1985). "A decision of the Supreme Court of California, construing the Constitution of the United States, while entitled to great respect, is not binding upon the federal courts." Smayda v. United States, 352 F.2d 251, 253 (9th Cir.1965), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 981, 86 S.Ct. 555, 15 L.Ed.2d 471 (1966). This is a cardinal principle of constitutional adjudication in the federal courts. 3

It is true, of course, that "in applying the ex post facto prohibition of the Federal Constitution to state laws, [a federal court] accepts the meaning ascribed to them by the highest court of the state." Lindsey, 301 U.S. at 400, 57 S.Ct. at 798. We have done just that. The California Supreme Court conceded in Jackson that prior to 1977, which includes the time Watson committed the crimes, individuals had no expectation of annual parole. Jackson, 39 Cal.3d at 469-70, 216 Cal.Rptr. 760, 703 P.2d 100. The Jackson court erred, however, in concluding that because the legislature intended all defendants to have the benefit of the DSL irrespective of the dates of their crimes, "for ex post facto purposes, this

Page 1096

case [must] be analyzed as if annual review were in effect at the time respondent committed his offense." Jackson, 39 Cal.3d at 470, 216 Cal.Rptr. 760, 703 P.2d 100.

Certainly, it is within the prerogative of the State of California to determine whether its DSL applied retrospectively to the benefit of persons having no expectation of annual parole at the time they committed their crimes. Indeed, absent California's decision to apply the DSL retrospectively, the ex post facto clause would not even be implicated. But it is not for California to say that "for ex post facto purposes" the DSL magically became the law in effect at the time Watson perpetrated the crimes. The ex post facto clause is not concerned with fiction. 4

At the time Watson committed the seven murders, annual parole suitability review was not in effect. The key ex post facto inquiry is the actual state of the law at the time the defendant perpetrated the offense. See United States v. Ahumada-Avalos, 875 F.2d 681, 684 (9th Cir.1989); United States v. Calabrese, 825 F.2d 1342, 1346 (9th Cir.1987); Hayward v. United States Parole Com'n 659 F.2d 857, 862 (8th Cir.1981), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 935, 102 S.Ct. 1991, 72 L.Ed.2d 454 (1982).

"[C]entral to the ex post facto prohibition is a concern for 'the lack of fair notice and governmental restraint when the legislature increases punishment beyond what was prescribed when the crime was consummated.' " Miller v. Florida, 482 U.S. 423, 107 S.Ct. 2446, 2451, 96 L.Ed.2d 351 (1987) (quoting Weaver, 450 U.S. at 30, 101 S.Ct. at 965) (emphasis added). The actual state of the law at the time a defendant commits the offense is determinative of whether he had fair notice of the consequences of his actions. In Miller, the...

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  • Bonin v. Vasquez, No. CV 91-0693-ER.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Central District of California
    • November 9, 1992
    ...of Ex Post Facto inquiry, this Court must look to the law in effect at the time petitioner committed his offenses. See Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1096 (9th Cir.1989). This is because the Ex Post Facto Clause is concerned with providing a defendant with fair notice of his punishment a......
  • Thomas v. Yates, No. 1:05-cv-01198-LJO-JMD-HC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
    • June 17, 2009
    ...that required a prisoner to demonstrate only that a retroactive parole law operated to her "disadvantage." See, e.g., Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1096-96 (9th Cir. 1989) (rejecting prisoner's claim where retroactive law that changed timing of Page 851 hearings did not operate to priso......
  • Bates v. Jones, No. C 95-02638 CW.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of California
    • April 23, 1997
    ...legislative term limits provisions do not violate the United States Constitution does not bind federal courts. See Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1095 (9th Cir.1989) (State supreme court decisions construing federal Constitution do not bind federal courts). However, its construction of t......
  • Brown v. Hartley, 1:10-cv—01200-LJO-SKO-HC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
    • June 23, 2011
    ...the Ex Post Facto Clause. See, e.g., California Department of Corrections v. Morales, 514 U.S. 499, 509 (19 95); Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1097-98 (9th Cir. 1989). Similarly, a state law permitting the extension of intervals between parole consideration hearings for all prisoners se......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
101 cases
  • Bonin v. Vasquez, No. CV 91-0693-ER.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Central District of California
    • November 9, 1992
    ...of Ex Post Facto inquiry, this Court must look to the law in effect at the time petitioner committed his offenses. See Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1096 (9th Cir.1989). This is because the Ex Post Facto Clause is concerned with providing a defendant with fair notice of his punishment a......
  • Thomas v. Yates, No. 1:05-cv-01198-LJO-JMD-HC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
    • June 17, 2009
    ...that required a prisoner to demonstrate only that a retroactive parole law operated to her "disadvantage." See, e.g., Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1096-96 (9th Cir. 1989) (rejecting prisoner's claim where retroactive law that changed timing of Page 851 hearings did not operate to priso......
  • Bates v. Jones, No. C 95-02638 CW.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of California
    • April 23, 1997
    ...legislative term limits provisions do not violate the United States Constitution does not bind federal courts. See Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1095 (9th Cir.1989) (State supreme court decisions construing federal Constitution do not bind federal courts). However, its construction of t......
  • Brown v. Hartley, 1:10-cv—01200-LJO-SKO-HC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
    • June 23, 2011
    ...the Ex Post Facto Clause. See, e.g., California Department of Corrections v. Morales, 514 U.S. 499, 509 (19 95); Watson v. Estelle, 886 F.2d 1093, 1097-98 (9th Cir. 1989). Similarly, a state law permitting the extension of intervals between parole consideration hearings for all prisoners se......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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