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October 2, 2014
  Castellanos v. Small
Headline: Ninth Circuit Reverses Denial of Habeas Relief after Finding Prosecutor's Purposeful Discrimination during Voir Dire.

Areas of Law: Criminal Law & Procedure, Constitutional Law

Issue Presented: Whether any purposeful discrimination had occurred during voir dire, possibly violating Petitioner-Appellant's constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Brief Summary: Petitioner-Appellant, Anthony Castellanos ("Castellanos") appealed from the district court's denial of his application for Habeas relief. The Ninth Circuit granted collateral review to determine whether Castellanos' constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated as a result of purposeful discrimination that may have occurred during voir dire.

The Court explained that under Batson v. Kentucky and People v. Wheeler, a defendant must first present a prima facie showing of purposeful discrimination. Then, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral justification so that the court may weigh the persuasiveness of the prosecution's reasons in light of the evidence.

The Court then assessed the reasonableness of the district court's factual determinations and conducted a formal comparative juror analysis using limited evidence presented only in the state court proceeding. Describing the prosecutor's reasons for striking particular venirepersons as pretextual, the Court held that the prosecution failed to meet its burden to make a race-neutral justification.

The Court concluded that purposeful discrimination during the voir dire examination had occurred, and that Castellanos' constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated. Thus, the Court remanded the case with instructions to grant Castellanos' application for Habeas relief.

Extended Summary:
Castellanos was 17 years old when he pointed a gun at 12-year-old Nicky and shot him in the head. Having tried to recruit Nicky and 11-year-old Joey to join his gang, Castellanos was charged in Los Angeles County Superior Court with murder, assault with a firearm, and street gang solicitation. Castellanos pleaded not guilty to all charges and proceeded to a jury trial.

During voir dire, twenty-nine venirepersons were questioned. Twelve venirepersons occupied the main jury box at any given time, and as a new venireperson entered the jury box, another was excused. At the outset, at least five of the twelve venirepersons seated in the main jury box were Hispanic. The prosecutor used six peremptory strikes, four of which were against the Hispanic venirepersons, thereby prompting defense counsel to make a Batson/Wheeler motion ("Batson motion").

The prosecution reminded the court that it had to find a prima facie showing of discrimination. The court responded, "Well, there are four Hispanics excused." The prosecution explained it had excused those venirepersons, not for being Hispanic, but because they had friends in gangs or had no children. Accordingly, the court denied the motion.

The empaneled jury, consisting of seven Hispanics, four Caucasians, and one Asian, convicted Castellanos of second-degree murder, assault with a firearm, and street gang solicitation. Castellanos was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in state prison.

On appeal, Castellanos contended that the trial court erred in denying his Batson motion. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court, citing People v. Trevino, and noting that "[t]he trial court's determination is entitled to considerable deference because of the court's knowledge of local conditions and local prosecutors, powers of observation, understanding of trial techniques and judicial experience." The California Supreme Court denied Castellanos' petition for review.

Upon the district court's receiving Castellanos' application for habeas relief, the magistrate judge issued an order stating that the state court's decision was contrary to clearly established federal law, but that after reviewing the parties' pleadings, the prosecutor's declaration, DMV photographs, and the totality of the circumstances, the prosecutor had not acted with purposeful discrimination. The district court accepted these conclusions and denied Castellanos' application for habeas relief.

Claiming his federal constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to Batson v. Kentucky were violated, Castellanos again appealed. The Ninth Circuit granted review de novo, first maintaining that the Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act limited such relief unless the state court proceedings either resulted in a decision contrary to established Federal law or resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.

In its analysis, the Court disagreed with the district court's conclusion that the California Court of Appeal incorrectly applied a higher standard of proof with respect to Castellanos' Batson motion, in direct contradiction with established federal law. Furthermore, the Court also rejected the district court's determination of the factual evidence that the prosecutor had not acted with purposeful discrimination.

The Court ruled that though the California Court of Appeal cited to a case superseded by Johnson v. California, which lowered a movant's burden of proof to a mere inference, the state court cited to that case for a proposition distinct from that which was superseded by Johnson. The Court, therefore, established that the state court's decision did not contradict the defendant's burden of proof established in Johnson.

Next, the Court evaluated the reasonableness of the district court's factual determinations and conducted a formal comparative juror analysis after noting that the trial court neglected to conduct one. The Court emphasized that Venirewoman 4968, who was dismissed by the prosecution for not having children, stated that she did have children. This fact, noted by the Court, was acknowledged by the prosecution when it asked about the occupations of her adult children. Consequently, the Court asserted that this direct contradiction undermined the prosecutor's credibility. Moreover, the Court listed other venirepersons who had no adult children but were permitted to serve on the jury, as well as one empaneled juror who did not even answer whether he had any children. The Court also criticized the prosecutor's question of whether the venirepersons had any adult children as an "odd way" of identifying whether the venirepersons had experience with young children. Lastly, the Court noted that the facts that there were seven Hispanics on the empaneled jury and that the prosecutor left eight of his peremptory strikes unused were not dispositive of a nondiscriminatory motive.

Describing the prosecutor's reasons for striking particular venirepersons as pretextual, the Court held that the prosecution failed to meet its burden to make a race-neutral justification. The Court concluded that purposeful discrimination during voir dire had occurred, and that Castellanos' constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated. Thus, the Court remanded the case with instructions to grant Castellanos' application for Habeas relief.

For the full opinion:
http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/da...14/09/09/12-55783.pdf

Panel: Stephen Reinhardt, John T. Noonan, and Mary H. Murguia, Circuit Judges.

Date of Issued Opinion: September 9, 2014

Docket Number: 12-55783

Decided: Reversed and remanded.

Case Alert Author: Daniel S. Seu

Counsel: Gia Kim (argued), Deputy Federal Public Defender, Sean K. Kennedy, Federal Public Defender, Los Angeles, California for Petitioner-Appellant; Scott Taryle (argued), Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Timothy M. Weiner and Stephanie C. Brenan, Deputy Attorneys General, Lance E. Winters, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Los Angeles, California, for Defendant-Appellee.

Author of Opinion: M. Murguia, Circuit Judge.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Ryan T. Williams

    Posted By: Ryan Williams @ 10/02/2014 12:10 PM     9th Circuit  

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