Hedgpeth v. Pulido

PETITIONER: Anthony Hedgpeth, Warden
RESPONDENT: Michael Robert Pulido
LOCATION: The Superior Court of San Mateo County

DOCKET NO.: 07-544
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 555 US (2008)
GRANTED: Feb 25, 2008
ARGUED: Oct 15, 2008
DECIDED: Dec 02, 2008

ADVOCATES:
Jeremy Friedlander - argued the cause for the petitioner
J. Bradley O'Connell - argued the cause for the respondent (appointed by the Court)
Pratik A. Shah - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner

Facts of the case

Michael Pulido was convicted of first-degree murder in a California state court for his involvement in the shooting of a gas station attendant during the course of a robbery. He claimed that he was only involved in the robbery after the shooting had taken place. On appeal, Mr. Pulido argued that the jury instructions were in error and allowed a jury to convict him as an accomplice in the robbery and murder, even if he only took part in the robbery. The California Supreme Court refused to overturn the conviction holding that the error was harmless because the jury had specifically found that Mr. Pulido aided the robbery during the murder.

Mr. Pulido sought and was granted habeas relief by a federal district court in California. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. It held that instructing a jury on multiple theories of guilt, one of which was legally improper, was "structural error" entitling Mr. Pulido to automatic relief and exempted the instructions from "harmless-error" review.

Question

Are jury instructions that instruct a jury on multiple theories of guilt, one of which is legally improper, necessarily "structural error" that exempts the instructions from a harmless-error review?

Media for Hedgpeth v. Pulido

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 2008 in Hedgpeth v. Pulido

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 02, 2008 in Hedgpeth v. Pulido

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We have filed with the clerk this morning a brief per curiam opinion deciding case No. 07-544, Hedgepeth versus Pulido.

Micheal Pulido was convicted by a California jury of felony murder.

After his conviction was upheld in a state court system, Pulido sought habeas relief in a Federal District Court.

The District Court overturned the conviction after concluding that an error in the jury instructions permitted the jury to convict on two alternate theories of felony murder, only one of which was valid under California law.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s holding.

The issue before this Court is not whether the lower courts were correct in deciding that there was an error in the instructions, instead, the questions is what to do about it.

The usual rule set forth in our cases is that a federal habeas petitioner can only obtain relief for an instructional error, if that error had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”

The Court of Appeals in this case however characterized the instructional error before it as structural.

If an error is structural, a conviction must be overturned without considering whether the error actually harmed the defendant.

We conclude that the Ninth Circuit was wrong to characterize the alternative theory instructional error as structural.

There is no basis for treating that particular kind of instructional error differently for the many other kinds that we have held do not result in automatically overturning a conviction but instead require considering whether the error actually caused any harm.

All nine members of the Court agree with that conclusion.

Even Pulido now does.

His argument before this Court was that although the Ninth Circuit was wrong to use the label structural, it in fact conducted the sort of inquiry into prejudice required by our cases.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg agreeing with that contention.

The rest of us do not believe that the Ninth Circuit considered whether the instructional error had a substantial and injurious effect as it should have and accordingly we remand the case for consideration of that question.

The judgment of the Court Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.