Vasquez v. Hillery

LOCATION: Kings County Superior Court: Hanford Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 84-836
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 474 US 254 (1986)
ARGUED: Oct 15, 1985
DECIDED: Jan 14, 1986

Clifford Earl Tedmon - on behalf of the Respondent
William George Prhal - on behalf of the Petitioner
William George Prahl - on behalf of the petitioner -- rebuttal

Facts of the case

In 1962, an all-white grand jury indicted Booker T. Hillery—a black man—for the murder of a 15-year-old girl. After Hillery was tried and convicted, he appealed his conviction and claimed that black potential jurors were systematically excluded from the grand jury that indicted him, which violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Hillery pursued remedy in state courts until the California Supreme Court finally denied him relief in 1978. Shortly after, Hillery filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court requested and received statistical evidence regarding the probability of having an all-white grand jury in Kings County, California, where Hillery was indicted and subsequently ruled in favor of Hillery. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.


(1) Did Hillery exhaust all avenues for habeas corpus relief in state court even though the federal district court requested additional evidence?

(2) Did Hillery's eventual conviction render any discrimination in the indictment process "harmless error"?

Media for Vasquez v. Hillery

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 1985 in Vasquez v. Hillery

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Prahl, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

William George Prahl:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

On June 27, 1962, the Kings County Grand Jury returned a true bill indicting Respondent Booker T. Hillery on a charge of first degree murder.

Respondent Hillery was charged with murdering a 15-year old girl on March 21, 1962.

Jury selection for the guilt phase of Respondent's trial began on October 23, 1962.

Respondent was found guilty of first degree murder and in another phase of the trial the same jury voted unanimously to impose the death penalty.

The guilt phase of Respondent's initial trial was affirmed while the penalty trial was reversed by the California Supreme Court.

Warren E. Burger:

Did I understand you to say this crime occurred in 1962?

William George Prahl:

Yes, Your Honor.

The crime occurred in March.

The indictment was returned in June.

Mr. Hillery received two subsequent penalty trials after his first penalty trial was reversed.

The third penalty trial was conducted in another county in California in 1970.

In both cases, the juries voted unanimously to again impose a death penalty.

In all, 36 jurors have decided that Mr. Hillery deserved nothing less than death for the brutal murder of Marlene Miller.

Twenty-one years after the initial jury verdict, Respondent's conviction was reversed by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.

Following an evidentiary hearing, the District Court found that there had been purposeful discrimination against black persons in selecting the grand jury between 1956 and 1962.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Prahl, did the state plead as a defense to the federal habeas action that it was prejudiced in presenting its defense of the action by the passage of time?

William George Prahl:

No, Your Honor.

In the original return we did not plead delay as a defense.

It was raised by way of a motion when it became clear that we were going beyond the original trial court record.

William H. Rehnquist:

And, the District Court ruled on that defense?

William George Prahl:

Yes, Your Honor.

The District Court denied our motion to dismiss in a published opinion.

William H. Rehnquist:

And, you have not presented that issue here?

William George Prahl:


Your Honor.

We feel that that is one of the issues that becomes involved in the question of harmless error.

In other words, as you... The issue before this Court is a question of whether purposeful discrimination in the selection of a grand jury can be considered harmless error.

And, one of the factors that we think the Court can look to in making that decision is the passage of time, the changes in circumstances that have occurred.