LOCATION:Circuit Court, Multnomah County
DOCKET NO.: 07-772
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 555 US (2009)
GRANTED: Mar 17, 2008
ARGUED: Oct 15, 2008
DECIDED: Jan 21, 2009
Jeffrey L. Fisher – argued the cause for the respondent
William B. Collins – argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
Cesar Sarausad was arrested in Washington state for his involvement in a drive-by shooting near a school. After he was convicted of second-degree murder and two attempted second-degree murder charges in a jury trial, Sarausad filed a petition for habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The district court granted Sarausad’s motion, holding that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction and that certain confusing jury instructions related to accomplice liability unconstitutionally relieved the state of its burden of proof.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling on the insufficiency of evidence claim but affirmed on the jury instructions claim. The court stated that the evidence at trial was sufficient to support a conviction underJackson v. Virginia. However, the jury instructions were ambiguous on the question of whether Sarausad could be convicted of murder and attempted murder on a theory of accomplice liability without proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew an accomplice intended to commit a murder. According to the Ninth Circuit, there was a reasonable chance the jury misapplied these instructions.
1) In reviewing a due process challenge to a jury instruction, must federal courts accept state court findings that instructions were correct?
2) Did the U.S. Court of Appeals err in affirming federal habeas corpus relief when it found a “reasonable likelihood” that the jury misapplied the jury instruction in Mr. Sarausad’s case and thereby relieved the state of its burden to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt?
Media for Waddington v. Sarausad
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 21, 2009 in Waddington v. Sarausad
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Thomas has our opinion this morning in case 07-772, Waddington versus Sarausad.
This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
As part of the gang dispute, respondent, Cesar Sarausad, drove his car by Seattle high school in a manner that allowed one of his passengers to shoot and kill one student and wound another.
The gunman was tried for murder.
Sarausad and another member of their gang, his co-defendant, were tried as accomplices.
At trial, Sarausad and the co-defendant testified that they did not know they were helping the gunman to commit murder.
They claimed that they thought that they were going to the high school just to provoke a fist fight with the rival gang.
The jury was instructed in the language of the relevant Washington statute regarding accomplice liability.
Specifically, the instruction stated that in order to find the defendant guilty as an accomplice in the commission of the crime, the jury must find that the defendant took certain specified actions with knowledge that they would promote or facilitate the commission of the crime.
The jury convicted the gunman of first-degree murder and Sarausad of second-degree murder, but failed to reach a verdict as to their co-defendant.
Sarausad’s conviction was affirmed on direct appeal.
Then, in an unrelated criminal case, the Washington Supreme Court considered an accomplice liability instruction that was different in one critical respect from the instruction given at Sarausad’s trial.
It instructed jury that knowledge of a crime was sufficient to establish accomplish liability for the crime.
The Washington Supreme Court held that the instruction was flawed because accomplish liability in Washington requires knowledge of the crime of conviction rather than just general knowledge that a crime may occur.
In state postconviction proceedings, Sarausad relied on that recent Washington Supreme Court decision.
He argue that his jury may have been confused by the instruction if received and may have thought it could convict him for murder based only on his anticipation of a fist fight with the rival gang.
The state courts denied his claim.
They found that the jury instruction in his case was a proper and clear statement of Washington law.
They also concluded that nothing at Sarausad’s trial could have led the jury to believe that it could convict him based on something less than his personal knowledge of a shooting.
In federal habeas proceedings, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a Federal District Court’s decision overturning Sarausad’s conviction.
The Court of Appeals held that the state court decision affirming Sarausad’s conviction was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.
In the Court’s view, the accomplice liability instruction used at Sarausad’s trial were ambiguous and may have misinterpreted in a way to permit conviction based on knowledge of an assault rather than the shooting.
In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), federal courts must give substantial deference to state court decisions upholding criminal convictions.
Therefore, federal habeas relief is available only where the state court’s application of federal law was objectively unreasonable.
Under our President to challenge a conviction based on a jury instruction, a defendant must show, one, that the instruction is ambiguous, and two, that there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury misapplied it.
The state court was not unreasonable when it found that neither requirement was established in this case.
The instruction quoted the state statute verbatim.
By its terms, the instruction required that accomplice liability for the crime be based on knowledge of the crime not a crime.
The state court reasonably concluded that there was no reasonable likelihood that the jury misunderstood that instruction.
Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg have joined.