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Media Alerts - Miguel Galindo Sifuentes v. P.D. Brazelton - Ninth Circuit
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July 7, 2016
  Miguel Galindo Sifuentes v. P.D. Brazelton - Ninth Circuit
Headline: Avoiding race specific and discriminatory language may help prosecutors survive a Batson motion, even when a prosecutor had a clear agenda to strike prospective black jurors from the jury.

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure, Habeas Corpus, Jury Selection Process

Issue Presented: Whether the California Court of Appeal was objectively unreasonable under "the doubly deferential standard" applied to collateral review of the Batson motions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEPDA) in affirming the trial court's determination that the prosecutor's reasons for striking the individual jurors were nondiscriminatory and whether the trial court's denial of defendant's request for rebuttal on the first two Batson motions in which five black jurors were excluded constituted an error that resulted in "actual prejudice" towards Sifuentes.

Brief Summary: Defendant Miguel Galindo Sifuentes was convicted of first degree murder. He made three objections during jury selection under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The trial court requested the prosecutor to explain the reasons for excusing the nine black prospective jurors. It determined that the reasons were race neutral and not discriminatory and denied the Sifuentes's request for rebuttal for the first two Batson motions, but granted the third. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision despite recognizing its error in denial of defendant's rebuttal on the motions. The California Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for review. Sifuentes then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. This request was partially granted by the district court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of a writ of habeas corpus because after applying the AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. § 2254, doubly deferential standard to the Batson challenges on collateral review the panel found that the state appellate court's holding was not objectively unreasonable in upholding the trial court's determination.

Significance: Sifuentes v. P.D. Brazelton further exemplifies a defendant's uphill battle to prove discrimination in the jury trial selection process, especially on collateral review, because the standards are even higher, while Foster v. Chatman (14-8349) is on the Supreme Court docket for further guidance in dealing with cases involving Batson motions.

Extended Summary: Defendants Miguel Galindo Sifuentes, Ruben Vasquez, and Hai Minh Le were accused of robbing an Outback Steakhouse restaurant in Dublin, California on December 11, 1998. Defendant Vasquez fatally shot Sheriff Deputy, John Monego, after the sheriff arrived at the scene and entered the restaurant. All three defendants fled the scene, but were later apprehended and tried jointly. Sifuentes was charged with first degree murder.
During the jury selection process, the prosecutor used preemptory strikes to remove thirty-three jurors, including nine black prospective jurors. Sifuentes made three objections under Baston and Wheeler. The trial judge determined that Sifuentes made a prima facie case of discrimination and asked the prosecutor to explain his reasoning for excusing the nine black prospective jurors. The trial court concluded that the prosecutor's reasons were racially neutral and not discriminatory. However, the trial court denied defendant's request for rebuttal on the first and second Baston motions, and only allowed rebuttal of the prosecutor's explanations for the third motion. The prosecutor stated that he would have allowed a black female prospective juror, but the defense excused her, and another black male juror failed to appear in court.

Sifuentes and his co-defendants were each convicted of first degree murder. Sifuentes appealed the conviction to the California Court of Appeal. The appellate court affirmed Sifuentes' conviction in January 2006. Thereafter, the California Supreme Court denied review in May 2006. Sifuentes petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court on the grounds that the state court "unreasonably determined the facts in rejecting his Batson challenge" and on the grounds that the state court "unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent in precluding him from rebutting the prosecutor's explanations for his strikes." The district court granted relief on Sifuentes' claim as to two jurors, Thompson and Gibson, and rejected the other claims. The state appealed.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit explained the framework available for review. The panel stated that Batson subjects the State's privilege to strike individual jurors to the commands of the Equal Protection Clause and "forbids the prosecutor to challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race." Batson, 476 U.S. at 89.

Batson applied a burden-shifting approach where first, the defendant must make a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination. Second, the burden then shifts to the State to provide a race neutral explanation for striking individual jurors. Third, the trial court must determine, based on the submissions provided, if the prosecutor showed purposeful discrimination. See Id. at 90. However, this determination is based on evaluation of credibility and is difficult to assess because the court performing the direct review must rely on the trial court's evaluation of prosecutor's intent.

Under a comparative juror analysis if the reasons for striking a black panelist apply to a similar nonblack who is seated, then there is "evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination." Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 241 (2005). However, the prosecutor's evaluation of a prospective juror that may be unfavorable to her side of the case is also a credibility determination, which takes into consideration the tone, demeanor, facial expression, and emphasis, inter alia, of prospective jurors during the voir dire process. See Burks v. Borg, 27 F.3d 1424, 1429 (9th Cir. 1994).

Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court did not create a bright line test to hold that there was a Batson violation where panelists of different races provided similar answers and only one was selected and the other was not. To reverse the trial court, the reviewing court must find that the trial court's credibility determination is clearly erroneous. Felkner v Jackson, 562 U.S. 594, 598 (2011). The U.S. Supreme Court held that "where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder's choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous." Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 369 (1991).

Nevertheless, in Felkner, the Supreme Court explained that on a federal habeas review, the standard is more deferential. 562 U.S. at 598. The collateral review follows the framework of the AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The AEDPA standard on a Batson claim is whether it is "doubly deferential." Briggs v. Grounds, 682 F.3d 1165, 1170 (9th Cir. 2012). First, the statute requires determining whether the state court's decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence when evaluating the prosecutor's race-neutral explanations. Mitleider v. Hall, 391 F.3d 1039, 1046-47 (9th Cir. 2004). Second, whether the state appellate court was objectively unreasonable in upholding the trial court's decision. However, even if the collateral review reaches a different conclusion on prosecutor's credibility, the reviewing court "must give the state appellate court the benefit of the doubt," Felkner, 562 U.S. at 598, and "may not grant the habeas petition unless the state court's decision was "not merely wrong, but actually unreasonable." Taylor v. Maddox, 366 F.3d 992, 999 (9th Cir. 2004).

Under Davis v. Ayala, following the AEDPA standard of review, the "[s]tate-court factual findings, moreover, are presumed correct; the petitioner of the burden of rebutting the presumption by 'clear and convincing evidence.'" 135 S. Ct. 2187, 2199-2200 (2015). Ayala goes further to establish that even if "reasonable minds reviewing the record might disagree about the prosecutor's credibility, on habeas review that does not suffice to supersede the trial court's credibility determination." Id. at 2201. The doubly deferential standard of review to be conducted on federal habeas means "unless the state appellate court was objectively unreasonable in concluding that the trial court's credibility determination was supported by substantial evidence, we must uphold it." Briggs, 682 F.3d at 1170.

Here, the panel evaluated the dismissed jurors, Thompson and Gibson, for which the district court granted relief. Although Thompson and Gibson stated they were "moderately in favor" of the death penalty, they were established to be more in favor of the death penalty than seven of the seventeen selected jurors who answered that they were "neutral;" and the prosecutor dismissed them on other grounds. Thompson was questioned extensively on his religious beliefs and showed a certain level of equivocation in regards to imposing the death penalty. The panel, citing White v. Wheeler, stated that "[a]mbiguity as to whether a juror would be able to give appropriate consideration to imposing the death penalty is a legitimate and reasonable basis for striking a juror." 136 S. Ct. 456, 461 (2015).

Second, in evaluating Gibson's questionnaire, the prosecutor became concerned with Gibson because she also qualified her answers in regards to the death penalty. The prosecutor also commented on Gibson's marital status and profession, which Sifuentes argued was discriminatory. However, the court cited Rice v. Collins, stating that even if the prosecutor relies on one impermissible reason to excuse a juror, no violation will be found if "[t]he prosecutor provided a number of other permissible and plausible race-neutral reasons." 546 U.S. 333, 340-41 (2006). Therefore, applying the doubly deferential standard, the California Court of Appeal's decision that the trial court properly evaluated the credibility of the prosecutor's assertions about Thompson and Gibson were not objectively unreasonable.

The panel evaluated six other excused black jurors struck during the voir dire process. Sifuentes argued that the district court's grant of habeas petition was also supported by the state appellate court's unreasonable determination of the facts in regards to these prospective jurors. After conducting the doubly deferential standard, the panel concluded that the California Court of Appeal did not make an objectively unreasonable determination of facts and that the trial court did not err in concluding that the prosecutor was credible.

Sifuentes also argued that this court should uphold the district court's grant of the habeas corpus petition because the trial court erred when it precluded him from responding to the prosecutor's explanation to two of the Batson objections raised at voir dire. Following Ayala's standard in analyzing this issue, the panel considered the error identified by the California Court of Appeal in the trial court's denial of rebuttal, and "for the sake of argument" the panel recognized it as a federal constitutional error. Similar to Ayala, the question then was whether such error was prejudicial to the defendant. See Ayala, 135 S. Ct. at 2197. In order to overcome the prejudicial outcome, Sifuentes had to show that the evidence on the record raised "grave doubts about whether the trial judge would have ruled differently." Id. at 2203.

The Brecht standard applies to analysis on collateral review where "the court must find that the defendant was actually prejudiced by the error." Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993). A reasonable possibility that a different outcome would result would not be enough. Ayala, 135 S. Ct. at 2203. On direct appeal the Chapman standard applies which requires "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at 2197. In a collateral proceeding, the test for prejudice is more forgiving to the prosecution. Id.

Under Ayala, applying the AEDPA, "a federal habeas court cannot grant relief unless the state court's rejection of his claim (1) was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, or (2) was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts." Id. at 2198. Here, the panel applied the "highly deferential AEDPA standard" because the case required adjudication on the merits. Id. at 2197. The panel concluded that a reasonable jurist could arrive to the conclusion that the California Court of Appeal's decision was not objectively unreasonable. Moreover, Sifuentes was not able to articulate a way in which an opportunity for rebuttal would have made a substantial difference at trial, therefore Sifuentes was not actually prejudiced, and if the court allowed rebuttal, there is no reasonable possibility that the trial judge would have ruled differently. The decision of the district court was reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss the petition.

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Panel: Before: Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain and Sandra S. Ikuta, Circuit Judges and James A. Teilborg, Senior District Judge.

Argument Date: May 12, 2015, Resubmitted February 10, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: February 18, 2016

Docket Number:

Decided: Reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss the petition.

Counsel: Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Peggy S. Ruffra, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, John H. Deist (argued), Deputy Attorney General, San Francisco, California, for Respondent-Appellant.

Denis P. Riordan, Donald M. Horgan (argued), Riordan & Horgan, San Francisco, California, for Petitioner-Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge S. S. Ikuta

Case Alert Author: David Erghelegiu

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Ryan T. Williams

    Posted By: Ryan Williams @ 07/07/2016 06:19 PM     9th Circuit  

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