RESPONDENT: Hector Ayala
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
DOCKET NO.: 13-1428
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 576 US (2015)
GRANTED: Oct 20, 2014
ARGUED: Mar 03, 2015
DECIDED: Jun 18, 2015
Robin Urbanski - for the petitioner
Anthony J. Dain - for the respondent
Facts of the case
Hector Ayala, a Hispanic man, was charged with three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder stemming from a failed robbery. During jury selection for his trial in California state court, the prosecution used seven preemptory challenges to exclude each black or Hispanic prospective juror. Ayala challenged the prosecution's use of preemptory challenges as a violation of the Supreme Court's decision in Batson v. Kentucky, which held that the exclusion of jurors on the basis of race was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In accordance with Batson, if a party can make a prima facie showing that preemptory challenges are being used in a racially motivated way, the other party must give a non-racially motivated reason for their use of the preemptory challenges. The state court allowed the prosecution to give their non-racially motivated reasons in a closed hearing, from which Ayala and his attorneys were excluded, and subsequently found the prosecution's use of preemptory challenges was not racially motivated. Ayala was not given the prosecution's reasoning or a transcript of the meeting until after the conclusion of his trial. Additionally, after the trial it was discovered that the vast majority of the questionnaires all the potential jurors had to fill out had been lost. Ayala was found guilty of the majority of the charges against him and sentenced to death.
On appeal, the California Supreme Court found that the state court erred in excluding Ayala from the Batson hearing, but that error as well as the loss of the questionnaires were harmless, and therefore upheld Ayala's conviction. Ayala appealed to the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and argued that the Batson hearing procedure and loss of the questionnaires violated his constitutional rights. In accordance with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the appellate court found that the California Supreme Court had not adjudicated Ayala's claims of federal constitutional violations on the merits largely on the basis that the California Court had determined the procedure used for the Batson hearing violated California state law; therefore the appellate court reviewed Ayala's claims de novo and found that the exclusion of Ayala from the Batson hearing, as well as the loss of the questionnaires, violated Ayala's constitutional rights. To determine whether the errors were harmless, the Court of Appeals applied the standard set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson , which asked whether the errors had a substantial and injurious influence on the jury's verdict, and found that the exclusion of Ayala from the Batson hearing deprived him of the ability to prevail on a compelling Batson challenge.
Is a state court's determination that a federal constitutional violation is harmless error an "adjudication on the merits" for purposes of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996?
Did the Court of Appeals properly apply the standard articulated in Brecht v. Abrahamson for reviewing whether a constitutional violation is harmless error?
Media for Davis v. AyalaAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 03, 2015 in Davis v. Ayala
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 18, 2015 in Davis v. Ayala
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
The second case is Davis v. Ayala 14-485.
In 1989 a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death.
During jury selection prior to his trial, Ayala argued that the prosecution struck seven prospective jurors on the basis of their race in violation of Batson v. Kentucky.
The trial judge permitted the prosecution to disclose its reasons for the strikes outside the presence of defense counsel.
After hearing the reasons for the preemptory challenges, the judge concluded that the prosecution had valid race-neutral reasons for the strikes.
This case is about whether the exclusion of defense counsel from the Batson hearing or from a portion of the Batson hearing was harmless error.
After Ayala was convicted, he appealed his conviction and death sentence, and he argued that the trial court's decision to exclude the defense from part of the Batson hearing violated his federal constitutional rights.
The California Supreme Court denied relief.
It held that even if Ayala's constitutional rights were violated any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under our decision in Chapman v. California.
Court held that defense counsel could not have argued anything substantial that would have changed the trial court's ruling that the strikes were not based on race.
Ayala then sought federal habeas relief.
The District Court denied relief, but the Ninth Circuit reversed and ordered that he be retried or released.
The Ninth Circuit first held that the exclusion of defense counsel from part of the Batson hearing violated Ayala's constitutional rights.
It then held that this error was not harmless under our decision in Brecht v. Abrahamson.
The Ninth Circuit thus ordered the State to either retry Ayala or release him from custody.
We now reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit, assuming without deciding that Ayala's federal constitutional rights were violated, we hold that any error was harmless.
The Ninth Circuit's contrary decision was based on a misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error.
Because Ayala seeks federal habeas relief, he must satisfy the test for harmlessness set forth in the Brecht decision that I previously mentioned.
Under that test a constitutional error is harmless unless it resulted in actual prejudice and had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.
Contrary to what the Ninth Circuit said in its opinion, the decision of the California Supreme Court on the question of harmlessness is also relevant.
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, or AEDPA, sets forth preconditions to the grant of Federal habeas relief.
AEDPA provides that habeas relief is appropriate only if the State court's harmlessness determination was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established law as determined by the Supreme Court.
Because the Brecht test for harmlessness is more difficult to meet than the AEDPA standard, we have previously held that a Federal habeas court need not formally apply both the Brecht and AEDPA tests, but that does not mean as the Ninth Circuit thought that a State court's harmlessness determination has no significance under Brecht.
Applying this standard we hold that the trial judge's decision to exclude defense counsel from part of the Batson hearing was harmless as to all seven prospective jurors at issue.
Ayala cannot establish under Brecht that the ex parte hearing actually prejudiced him and thus he necessarily cannot establish under AEDPA that no fair-minded jurists could agree with the State court's decision that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ayala and the dissent focused largely on the prosecution's decision to strike one prospective juror Olanders D, an African-American man.
The prosecution stated that it struck Olanders D because it was concerned that he could not impose the death penalty and because of the poor quality of his responses.
As the trial court and the State Supreme Court found the record amply supports the prosecution's concerns and Ayala cannot establish that the exclusion of the defense from part of the Batson hearing caused him prejudice.
For these and other reasons set forth in our opinion, we reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Justices Kennedy and Thomas have filed concurring opinions.