August 29, 2012
Ninth Circuit Grants Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus of Death Row Inmate on Equal Protection and Due Process Grounds
In a divided opinion in Ayala v. Wong, the Ninth Circuit today granted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on equal protection and due process grounds.
As the opinion describes, during the
selection of the jury that convicted Ayala and sentenced him to death, the prosecution used its peremptory challenges to strike all of the black and Hispanic jurors available for challenge. The trial judge concluded that Ayala had established a prima facie case of racial discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), but permitted the prosecution to give its justifications for the challenges of these jurors in an in camera hearing from which Ayala and his counsel were excluded. The trial judge then accepted the prosecution’s justifications for its strikes without disclosing them to the defense or permitting it to respond.
The failure to disclose the prosecution's rationales and allow defense counsel to demonstrate they were pretextual violates the process the Court mandated in Batson. In Alaya's case, this was compounded by what the opinion labels "the state’s later loss of a large portion of the record." This portion included juror information and the court concluded that because "the state’s loss of the questionnaires deprived Ayala of the ability to meaningfully appeal the denial of his Batson claim, he was deprived of due process."
In a dissenting opinion as lengthy as the majority, Judge Consuelo M. Callahan accuses the majority of not honoring the procedural obstacles to Alaya's claim, of making unwarranted suppositions, and of opening the floodgates. She writes:
In essence, the majority holds that because the record does not affirmatively negate the existence of a possible racial bias, the existence of such a bias may be assumed. Under this approach all Batson challenges in federal habeas petitions must be granted because no one can disprove a negative.
Yet the converse would also be true, of course. If Alaya's petition were not granted, it would allow judges to deny all litigants, including criminal defendants, the ability to refute the proffered race-neutral explanation, and to absolutely insulate a Batson claim from appellate review.
[image: The Jury by John Morgan, 1861, via]
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