Habeas day at the Ninth Circuit

Zapata v. Vasquez, No. 12-17503 (9th Cir. June 9, 2015); Lee v. Jacquez, No. 12-56258 (9th Cir. June 9, 2015); Bemore v. Chappell, No. 12-99005 (9th Cir. June 9, 2015).

The Ninth Circuit has issued three published habeas decisions today—all of which grant relief at least in part.

Zapata v. Vasquez deals with prosecutorial misconduct. In his closing argument at Zapata’s trial, the state prosecutor invented, out of whole cloth, a story about the last words Zapata’s victim heard. In the prosecutor’s fictional account, these words were full of inflammatory slurs against Mexicans. The Ninth Circuit holds that defense counsel, by failing to object to the prosecutor’s closing argument, provided Zapata with constitutionally inadequate representation. And, it says, the California Court of Appeal was unreasonable in concluding otherwise. The Ninth Circuit directs the district court to grant the writ. 

Lee v. Jacquez asks whether a particular California procedural rule, stated in a California Supreme Court opinion, amounts to what in habeas land is called an “independent and adequate state-law ground.” If a state court’s denial of relief rests on an independent and adequate state-law ground, federal habeas relief is unavailable, except in special circumstances. The Ninth Circuit decides that this particular California rule isn’t adequate—or at least wasn’t adequate when the habeas petitioner here was litigating his claims in state court—because it wasn’t regularly and consistently applied. Because the district court dismissed the petition believing it was barred by independent and adequate state grounds, the Ninth Circuit remands the petition to the district court for consideration on the merits.

Finally, in Bemore v. Chappell, a death-penalty case, the court affirms the district court’s denial of habeas relief as to the petitioner’s conviction, but reverses the denial of habeas relief as to the death sentence.