Johnson v. Lee

PETITIONER: Deborah K. Johnson, Warden
RESPONDENT: Donna Kay Lee
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 15-789
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: May 31, 2016
DECIDED: May 31, 2016

Facts of the case

Donna Kay Lee and Peter Carasi were each convicted in California state court of two counts of first-degree murder for the murder of Carasi’s mother and for his ex-girlfriend. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, and the California appellate courts affirmed the conviction on direct appeal. Lee filed a petition for federal habeas relief without seeking state postconviction relief, and the petition mostly raised claims that Lee had not raised on direct appeal. Because Lee had not exhausted state relief measures, the district court stayed the case until the state law claims could be fully litigated. The California Supreme Court ruled that Lee’s state law claims were barred based on the precedent of In re Dixon, which held that a claim that could have been raised on direct appeal but wasn’t raised until postconviction relief proceedings is considered procedurally defaulted. The federal district court similarly dismissed Lee’s claims based on the Dixon bar. On appeal, Lee argued that the California courts were not consistently applying Dixon because the courts had not cited the case in every instance in which it should have applied and therefore that the bar was inadequate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit remanded for further evidence, and after the presentation of evidence about how often California courts applied the Dixon bar, the district court again dismissed Lee’s claims. The appellate court reversed and held that the evidence was insufficient to show that the Dixon bar was being consistently applied, and therefore that the bar was inadequate.

Question

Is evidence that there are times when a procedural bar was not used in cases in which it could have been applied sufficient to show that the bar is not adequate?