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3 Rulings by 9th Circuit Reversed

U.S. Supreme Court faults a federal court in California for nullifying convictions of two killers and granting an immigrant asylum.

November 05, 2002|David G. Savage and Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court rebuked the federal appeals court in California on Monday for having wrongly ruled in favor of two Los Angeles-area murderers who had appealed their convictions earlier this year.

In a pair of unanimous decisions, the high court reversed the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and reinstated the convictions. In a third reversal -- also unanimous -- the justices said the 9th Circuit wrongly granted asylum to a Guatemalan immigrant.

It is rare for the high court to reverse a lower court's ruling without hearing arguments in the case. But the justices did it three times Monday.

In all three rulings, the justices said the federal judges in California had exceeded their authority by second-guessing a state court or federal immigration authorities.

"This is a kind of a slap at the 9th Circuit, and a well-deserved slap in my view," said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

State prosecutors said that they were pleased with the decisions and that they could speed the way to carrying out the death penalty.

California has by far the nation's largest death row, with 612 people condemned to die. Yet executions are rare, largely because federal judges in California have been more willing to block state officials than their counterparts in Texas and Virginia.

"I think this is a very strong statement to the 9th Circuit that they have misapplied the deference standard," said Dane Gillette, who heads the death penalty unit for the California attorney general.

He was referring to a 1996 law that tells federal judges that they should defer to the rulings of state courts.

The issue -- although technical -- is crucial in death penalty cases. It also reflects a long-running debate over how judges should decide an inmate's challenge to an old conviction. Under the Habeas Corpus Act, state inmates can contest their cases in a federal court.

Some federal judges say their main duty is to uphold constitutional rights. If a state inmate appeals, these judges will reverse a conviction if they believe the inmate's rights were violated.

But six years ago, the Republican-led Congress, at the urging of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, passed a law that amended the Habeas Corpus Act, making it harder for federal judges to reverse a conviction that was upheld by a state supreme court.

Proponents of the law cited the perennial disputes between California prosecutors and the 9th Circuit as a key reason for the measure.

The new law, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, says federal judges should not take up an inmate's case unless the state court's ruling was "contrary to ... clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court."

Despite that high barrier, the 9th Circuit's judges have continued to reverse convictions from the California courts, to the dismay of state prosecutors and the Supreme Court.

The court's action Monday revived a death sentence for John L. Visciotti, who robbed and shot two co-workers in Orange County in 1982.

He shot the two men repeatedly at close range and left them to die in Santiago Canyon. But one lived and testified against him. At his sentencing hearing, jurors were told that four years earlier, Visciotti had stabbed two other people, including a pregnant woman.

They sentenced him to die. The California Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence in 1992 and rejected a habeas appeal in 1996.

In April, however, the 9th Circuit overturned Visciotti's death sentence on the grounds that his lawyer failed to tell jurors about Visciotti's drug use and his "absolutely horrendous family history."

His attorney Roger Agajanian's "performance during the penalty phase was deficient because he conducted essentially no investigation in search of mitigating evidence about Visciotti," Judge Harry Pregerson said. He was joined by Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Marsha Berzon.

Pregerson said he would have gone further and reversed Visciotti's conviction because of the failures of his lawyer.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer appealed and won a speedy reversal Monday.

"This decision exceeds the limits imposed on federal habeas review," the justices said. Rather than defer to the California courts, the "9th Circuit ... ultimately substituted its own judgment for that of the state court.... The circumstances of the crime (a coldblooded execution-style killing and the attempted execution-style killing of another) coupled with the aggravating evidence of prior offenses (the knifing of one man and the stabbing of a pregnant woman trying to protect her unborn baby) was devastating," the justices said.

These facts undoubtedly outweighed the concerns over Visciotti's miserable family life. So, regardless of the lawyer's performance, the jury was likely to return a death sentence in the case, the court concluded in Woodford vs. Visciotti.

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