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Doe v. Ayers

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

March 31, 2015

JOHN DOE, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
ROBERT L. AYERS, JR., Warden, of California State Prison at San Quentin, Respondent-Appellee

As Corrected April 16, 2015.

Page 426

Appeal from the United States District Court for the [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT] District of California. D.C. No. [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]. [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT], District Judge, Presiding.

SUMMARY[*]

Habeas Corpus/Death Penalty

The panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's judgment on California state prisoner John Doe's habeas corpus petition challenging his murder conviction and capital sentence, and remanded with instructions to grant the writ with respect to the penalty phase and return the case to the state court to reduce Doe's sentence to life without parole, unless the state elects to pursue a new capital sentencing proceeding within a reasonable amount of time as determined by the district court.

The panel wrote that because Doe filed his petition prior to the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the parties agree that his petition is governed by pre-AEDPA standards of review.

The panel agreed with the district court that Doe is not entitled to reversal of his conviction on the basis of the claims presented in the petition: ineffective assistance of counsel during the guilt phase, use of peremptory strikes in a racially discriminatory matter in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, improper withholding of impeachment evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, extraneous evidence of prior crimes, and cumulative prejudice.

The panel agreed with the district court that counsel was ineffective in failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence at the penalty phase. The panel wrote that the evidence that counsel's performance at the penalty phase fell well below the constitutional minimum is overwhelming.

The panel held that there is a substantial probability that there would have been a different result at the penalty phase had counsel's performance not been ineffective, and that the district court therefore erred in concluding that counsel's deficient performance did not prejudice Doe. The panel wrote that the aggravating evidence the jury considered was, for a capital case, fairly minimal, and that counsel's penalty-phase evidentiary presentation was brief, haphazard, and thoroughly underwhelming. The panel wrote that the powerful evidence introduced in the habeas proceedings at the district court represented the fruits of an appropriate mitigation investigation, and concluded that the evidence of Doe's repeated rape in prison as a youngster and its detrimental effects on his mental health is sufficient to establish prejudice. The panel wrote that additional mitigating evidence of Doe's abusive childhood and substance abuse, which counsel likewise failed to present, only strengthens that conclusion. The panel wrote that its finding of prejudice is supported by a comparison with other capital cases, and rejected the state's arguments, regarding causal nexus and rebuttal evidence, against the conclusion that counsel's deficient penalty-phase performance prejudiced Doe.

John R. Grele (argued), Tiburon, California; and David W. Fermino, Sideman & Bancroft, San Francisco, California, for Petitioner-Appellant.

Barry J. Carlton (argued), Supervising Deputy Attorney General, San Diego, California, for Respondent-Appellee.

Before: Harry Pregerson, Stephen Reinhardt, and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 427

REINHARDT, Circuit Judge:

I. Introduction

In 1984, a house in California was burglarized and a number of items were stolen. K.H. and M.H. resided there with M.H.'s young children, a live-in babysitter, L.R., and her daughter. Petitioner John Doe,[1] who was living at the time in a vacant house adjacent to the property, was arrested in connection with the burglary, but then released.

Soon after, while K.H. and M.H. were not at home, their house was burglarized again. L.R. was murdered, having been beaten, stabbed, and strangled. Her body was found supine on the bed in the master bedroom, with her hands bound behind her back. She was naked from the waist down, with her legs open, and a vibrator near her body. A number of items were stolen.

After an investigation, Doe was arrested. He was charged with one count of murder and two counts of burglarizing the home. Special circumstances of felony-murder-burglary and felony-murder-rape were alleged; also alleged was a prior felony conviction for an armed robbery committed in the Southern state where Doe grew up. J.B., who had never before worked on a case in which the death penalty was at issue, was appointed to represent

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Doe.[2] He hired an investigator, D.S., who interviewed potential witnesses in California and in Doe's home state.[3]

Doe pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied the allegations. The jury returned verdicts finding Doe guilty of murder and both counts of burglary. The jury also rendered a finding of true on the felony-murder-burglary special-circumstance allegation, and a finding of not true on the felony-murder-rape special-circumstance allegation. At the penalty phase, the jury returned a sentence of death.[4]

The California Supreme Court denied Doe's direct appeal, and the Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari. The California Supreme Court also denied Doe's habeas petition, twice.

Doe filed a federal habeas petition, which was also denied. The district court affirmed the conviction, rejecting a number of guilt-phase challenges. As for Doe's claim that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase of his trial, the court found that counsel for Doe had performed deficiently in failing to investigate and present various categories of mitigating evidence. However, the district court concluded that Doe could not establish that he had been prejudiced as a result, as required under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 695, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984).

We agree with the district court that Doe is not entitled to reversal of his conviction on the basis of the claims presented in the petition before us. With respect to the penalty-phase claim, we agree that defense counsel was ineffective but disagree with the conclusion that Doe was not prejudiced. Accordingly, we affirm Doe's conviction but reverse as to his sentence, and instruct the district court to grant the writ.

II. Standard of Review

This case is unusual in that Doe filed his federal habeas petition in 1995, prior to the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (" AEDPA" ). Accordingly, the parties agree that his petition is governed by pre-AEDPA standards of review. See Comer v. Schriro, 480 F.3d 960, 980 (9th Cir. 2007). " Under these standards state court judgments of conviction and sentence carry a presumption of finality and legality and may be set aside only when a state prisoner carries his burden of proving that his detention violates the fundamental liberties of the

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person, safeguarded against state action by the Federal Constitution." Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). " A state court's conclusion that a constitutional error was harmless is reviewed de novo." Daniels v. Woodford, 428 F.3d 1181, 1196 (9th Cir. 2005). In this analysis, the additional deference required by AEDPA does not apply.

This court reviews de novo the district court's denial of habeas relief. See Alcala v. Woodford, 334 F.3d 862, 868 (9th Cir. 2003). Underlying factual determinations made by the district court are reviewed for clear error. See Hovey v. Ayers, 458 F.3d 892, 900 (9th Cir. 2006). Determinations by the district court of legal questions or mixed questions of law and fact are reviewed de novo. Frierson v. Woodford, 463 F.3d 982, 988 (9th Cir. 2006).

III. Guilt-Phase Claims

In the petition before us, Doe raises a number of challenges to his conviction, all of which were rejected by the district court. We discuss these claims only briefly, as we agree with the result reached by the district court.

A. Rule 60(b)

First, Doe asserts that the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion to vacate the judgment in which it denied his habeas petition under Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). Doe requested relief under Rule 60(b) based on newly discovered physical evidence that was in the possession of the state. He alleges that the state withheld from his prior habeas counsel DNA and fingerprint evidence from the crime scene and from a related murder that it tested post-trial and was not a match to Doe. He also alleges that his prior habeas counsel was negligent in failing to pursue claims based on this evidence once she learned of it.

Doe's Rule 60(b) claims have a complicated procedural history:

In March 2005, while the present petition was still pending before the district court, Doe sent a letter to the court stating that he no longer wanted his appointed attorneys to continue to represent him, in part because they refused to investigate his claims of actual innocence. Two weeks after he reiterated that request in June, the district court denied Doe's request, and simultaneously denied his habeas petition. Doe appealed the denial of his motion for substitution of counsel, and we appointed new (present) habeas counsel, who filed his Rule 60(b) motion; the district court denied it. After consolidating Doe's appeals, we held that the district court had abused its discretion in denying Doe's request for substitution of counsel. We vacated the district court's denial of this request, together with its denial of Doe's petition for writ of habeas corpus, and remanded for further proceedings in which Doe's newly-appointed counsel would have the opportunity to make additional submissions to the district court.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.[5] It concluded that we had erred in holding that the district court abused its discretion in rejecting Doe's request for new counsel. In so doing, it noted that the evidence at issue might have established a Brady claim, a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to adequately investigate the murder, or a claim of innocence, especially given that no physical evidence tied Doe to the crime and that he was convicted based in part on recanted testimony. The Court went on to say, however, that all of those claims would have been new, and that as the district

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court subsequently found in ruling on the Rule 60(b) motion, the physical evidence was not related to the claims previously presented in Doe's habeas petition. Because these claims were new claims for relief on the merits, and did not attack a defect in the integrity of the proceedings, Doe was required to raise them not in a Rule 60(b) motion, but in a successive habeas petition. Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524, 529--32, 125 S.Ct. 2641, 162 L.Ed.2d 480 (2005).[6] We therefore do not consider them here, but may do so in the future if Doe is subsequently granted the right to file a second or successive petition.

B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Second, Doe alleges that his trial counsel, J.B., provided ineffective assistance of counsel during the guilt phase of his trial. J.B.'s performance at the guilt phase of Doe's trial was certainly subpar. He failed to interview two young children who were the only eyewitnesses to the murder and who, in initial police reports, identified the killer as white (Doe is black). Although the failure to even interview the only eyewitnesses to the crime was unquestionably deficient performance, J.B. did offer a couple of reasonable justifications for his decision not to put them on as witnesses: the children appeared unreliable, and the prosecutor agreed not to tell the jury that children were present at the time of the murder if J.B. did not call them to testify.[7]

J.B. also failed to follow up on a potential alibi witness, C.L., with whom Doe claimed that he had gone drinking the night of the murder. During an interview with D.S., C.L. said that it was more likely than not that Doe was with him at a local bar on the night of the murder, given that the murder occurred on a Thursday and C.L. and Doe always went out drinking on Thursday nights. Because C.L. had no specific recollection of that particular evening, he told D.S. that he would attempt to find more definite support for the alibi. D.S. provided J.B. with a copy of a report summarizing his interview with C.L.; however, J.B. never attempted to contact C.L. again until, just before trial, when he tried to subpoena him as a trial witness.[8] Then, when service was initially unsuccessful, J.B. made no further attempt to track him down. J.B. also acted in an objectively unreasonable way when he failed to call a blood spatter expert who stated in his report that had Doe committed the murder, he would have been spattered with blood. J.B. never asserted a strategic reason for not calling the blood spatter expert, and the arguments raised by the state to undermine the probative value of this evidence (suggesting that Doe would have had time to wash the blood off, and that the witness who spent time with him later that evening did not see him in bright light) provide no reason not to present this testimony.

Additionally, Doe argues that J.B. failed to investigate and challenge the reliability

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of one of the state's witnesses, P.F., a girlfriend-turned-informant who testified that she bumped into Doe the night of the murder, that he left her alone during the time the crime was committed, and that he returned with a bit of blood on his hand and carrying distinctive items stolen from the home in which L.R. was killed. P.F. testified that he told her that he had " just finished beating up a woman." Later, she taped a conversation with Doe, during which he made inculpatory statements.

There was good reason to doubt the reliability of P.F.'s testimony. Two women who knew her told D.S. that she had a reputation for lying. However, neither D.S. nor J.B. interviewed B.P., one of the two people P.F. said she had been walking with when she encountered Doe that evening. When contacted later by habeas counsel, B.P. contradicted P.F.'s story, stating convincingly that she knew she had not been out with P.F. that night. P.F. had been in a bicycling accident shortly prior to the date of the crime, and a number of people stated in declarations that she had suffered from significant memory loss for months. P.F. essentially admitted in a declaration that, because she was still recovering from the accident, she could not have been with Doe on the night of the murder. It also appears that she was suffering cognitive deficits resulting from the combination of a medication and alcohol. Doe argues that in addition to impeaching P.F. based on her reputation for dishonesty and cognitive deficits, J.B. should have asked her about the extent to which the police appear to have helped her fill holes in her memory.

However, J.B. did impeach P.F. to a significant degree. He elicited testimony about the seriousness of her head injury and the fact that she was taking medication and drinking alcohol on the night of the murder. He also elicited testimony that she had previously made false statements. He demonstrated that the moon was not full, as she had stated, the night of the murder, and that items she claimed to have seen that night in the vacant house had been removed previously. Finally, he prompted her to admit that she had not initially remembered the date of her interaction with Doe, and that the police had supplied her with it. We agree with the district court that while J.B. could have done a much better job of impeaching P.F., his efforts in this respect were not constitutionally inadequate. The additional impeachment evidence would have been largely cumulative, albeit stronger, but the failures regarding impeachment of P.F. are of comparatively little consequence, as the most important portion of her testimony was the introduction of her recorded conversation with Doe that served to corroborate the circumstantial evidence of his guilt.

Lastly, Doe asserts that J.B. should have introduced evidence that K.H. was dealing drugs out of his home, that he had argued with L.R. shortly before her death and had previously assaulted someone, that neighbors reported domestic problems, and that L.R. had expressed to M.H. her fear that her wild life would end before her next birthday. The state is correct that evidence suggesting K.H.'s culpability would have been excluded under People v. Hall, 41 Cal.3d 826, 833, 226 Cal.Rptr. 112, 718 P.2d 99 (1986), because for third party evidence to come in, it must demonstrate more than " mere motive or opportunity." As for the evidence going more generally to the dangerous circumstances in which the victim lived, we do not believe it would have created significant doubt in the minds of the jurors.

J.B. certainly did not provide high-quality representation to Doe at the guilt phase of his trial. However, he had a

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strategic justification for not calling the child witnesses. While he offered no such justification for his failure to follow up with the alibi witness, call the blood spatter expert, or demonstrate the dangerous environment in which the victim lived, it appears that none of this evidence would have been particularly persuasive. Failing to impeach P.F., the prosecution's most important witness, would have been a very serious error, but J.B. did offer substantial impeachment evidence. Hence, we conclude that Doe has not shown prejudice.

Decisively, the prosecution's strongest evidence -- which is not addressed by any of the claims Doe raises here[9] -- was the taped conversation between him and his girlfriend, P.F., during which, as the state argues, Doe made inculpatory statements. While Doe at one point denied involvement and never explicitly confessed, he made a number of very damning statements in regard to the murder. He warned: " They can't prove a motherfuckin' thing, not unless you open your motherfuckin' mouth." He added: " Baby what you fail to realize, how the motherfuckers they gonna prove I was there? . . . There ain't no motherfuckin' fingerprints, ain't no fuckin' where in there, and ain't no fuckin' body seen me go in there and leave out of there." In response to a request to tell her " what the fuck happened over there," he said: " Why should I, so you can go back and tell [the police?]" When she stated that she had seen blood on him that night, he replied, " Ain't on me no more." Because of the strength of this evidence, we conclude that even if J.B. had performed adequately, there is not a reasonable probability that the jury would have acquitted Doe of murder.

C. Batson

Third, Doe claims that the prosecutor at his trial used peremptory strikes in a racially discriminatory manner, and that J.B. was ineffective for his failure to raise an objection. Four black veniremembers remained after excuses for hardship and death qualification; two were struck by the prosecutor, a third was removed for cause, and the remaining one was empaneled. Doe contends that J.B. was ineffective for failing to challenge these strikes under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). In fact, J.B. did raise such a challenge, demanding reasons before the black jurors were struck, but the trial court ruled -- correctly -- that it was premature. For reasons passing understanding, J.B. never renewed his request after the black jurors were removed from the venire. This failure made it necessary for Doe to raise the issue of discriminatory jury selection through an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

Doe is correct that this failure constituted deficient performance. Additionally, though, Doe has the burden to demonstrate prejudice by showing that there is a reasonable probability that the claim J.B. failed to raise at trial would have prevailed, either at trial or on appeal. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. He cannot do so.

In order to prevail on a Batson claim, Doe would have needed to make a prima facie showing that the prosecutor exercised his peremptory strikes on the basis of race. To show that he could have done

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so, he relies on the statistically disparate use of strikes, and on the fact that the prosecutor asked black -- but not white -- veniremembers whether their race might influence their judgment. While the prosecutor's disparate use of strikes and selective questioning is troubling, in a recent and similar case, Carrera v. Ayers, 699 F.3d 1104, 1110--11 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 2039, 185 L.Ed.2d 899 (2013), we concluded that under the standard that would have applied at Doe's trial and on direct appeal,[10] such a statistical disparity combined with questions about racial bias posed only to veniremembers of a particular racial or ethnic group was insufficient to show a " strong likelihood" that the strikes were made " because of [the veniremembers'] group association," and therefore insufficient to demonstrate prejudice.[11] We are bound by that precedent, so we deny relief with respect to the claim that J.B. was ineffective for failing to properly make a Batson challenge.

D. Brady

Fourth, Doe argues that the prosecutor improperly withheld impeachment evidence -- namely, that the police working on his case had interceded on behalf of M.H. in a welfare fraud and perjury case. The extent of the intercession, if any, remains unclear; there is no evidence in the record of any deal, except for a notation in M.H.'s file by an unidentified person that she was " very important to [a] case." Whether or not this constituted a violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963),[12] however, Doe cannot establish prejudice. See Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 281--82, 119 S.Ct. 1936, 144 L.Ed.2d 286 (1999). M.H.'s testimony simply described items taken from the house during the murder-burglary, which the prosecution compared to the (nearly identical) list of items P.F. reported seeing in Doe's possession. Especially given that the jury already knew that M.H. had been charged with perjury, it is unlikely to have further discounted her testimony upon learning that she received some indefinite benefit for her cooperation. What's more, Doe's recorded statements, discussed previously, were strong enough evidence to support a conviction even if the jury had some doubt about M.H.'s credibility.

E. Evidence of Prior Crimes

Fifth, Doe asserts that the jury received extraneous evidence of prior crimes he committed, and that this prejudiced him. Specifically, he complains that

Page 434

during an hour-long mid-trial examination of exhibits, but not during its eventual deliberations, the jury had access to unredacted transcripts of Doe's recorded conversation with P.F. containing references to a prior burglary and a prior assault. However, these references were extremely brief and buried in a transcript containing much more compelling evidence of Doe's guilt. Furthermore, the jurors were questioned about their review of the transcripts after the conclusion of the penalty phase, and none remembered reading anything about assaults or burglaries in the transcript. We agree with the district court that this evidence, even if the jury did see it, was harmless.

Doe also challenges the trial judge's decision to allow the prosecutor to impeach a character witness, D.P., Doe's girlfriend in California, by asking her whether she had heard that he had been accused of rape in his home state and whether this affected her opinion of him. (It did not.) Impeachment of character witnesses with questions about prior bad acts of the defendant, even if unproven, is common practice. See Fed.R.Evid. 405(a). Thus, this claim fails.

F. Cumulative Prejudice

Sixth, and finally, Doe claims that these guilt-phase errors were cumulatively prejudicial. Because Doe's guilt-phase claims do not call into question the veracity or admissibility of the most damning evidence of his guilt -- his own recorded, inculpatory statements -- we hold that, on the record before us, he cannot demonstrate prejudice with respect to his conviction.

IV. Penalty-Phase Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

More important, for purposes of this opinion, Doe contends that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to investigate, and present at the penalty phase of his trial, certain mitigating evidence. That evidence relates to sexual abuse he suffered while previously incarcerated in a notorious prison in the South, as well as to mental illness, neglect and abuse he suffered during his childhood, and substance abuse. To prevail on this claim, Doe must show both that counsel was deficient and that he was prejudiced as a result. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687--88.

Deficient performance requires a showing that " counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Id. at 688. Defense counsel is " strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Id. at 690. To rebut this presumption, Doe must show that J.B. did not act " reasonabl[y] considering all the circumstances." Id. at 688.

" No particular set of detailed rules for counsel's conduct can satisfactorily take account of the variety of circumstances faced by defense counsel or the range of legitimate decisions regarding how best to represent a criminal defendant." Id. at 688--89. However, " [r]estatements of professional standards . . . can be useful as 'guides' to what reasonableness entails . . . to the extent they describe the professional norms prevailing when the representation took place." Bobby v. Van Hook, 558 U.S. 4, 7, 130 S.Ct. 13, 175 L.Ed.2d 255 (2009). At the time of Doe's trial in 1987, the prevailing professional norms, as outlined by the ABA Standards, required that a lawyer " conduct a prompt investigation of the circumstances of the case and [] explore all avenues leading to ...


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