Davis v. Ayala
576 US ___ (2015)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

During jury selection in Ayala’s murder trial, Ayala, who is Hispanic, objected that seven of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges were impermissibly race-based under Batson v. Kentucky. The judge permitted the prosecution to disclose its reasons for the strikes outside the presence of the defense and concluded that there were valid, race-neutral reasons for the strikes. Ayala was convicted and sentenced to death. The California Supreme Court concluded that it was harmless error, under state law, to exclude Ayala from the hearings, and that, if a federal error occurred, it too was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. A divided Ninth Circuit panel granted Ayala habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254(d). The Supreme Court reversed. Any federal constitutional error that may have occurred by excluding Ayala’s attorney from part of the Batson hearing was harmless. The California Supreme Court’s decision was an “adjudication on the merits” of Ayala’s claim; a federal court cannot grant Ayala relief unless the state court’s rejection of his claim was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Any federal constitutional error was harmless with respect to all seven prospective jurors. Each of the reasons for using a challenge was amply supported by the record and there is no basis for finding that the absence of defense counsel affected the trial judge’s evaluation of the strikes. The trial judge heard counsel’s arguments and concluded that the record supplied a legitimate basis for the prosecution’s concern. That defense counsel did not have the opportunity to repeat that argument does not create grave doubt about whether the trial court would have decided the issue differently.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

DAVIS, ACTING WARDEN v. AYALA

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 13–1428. Argued March 3, 2015—Decided June 18, 2015

During jury selection in respondent Ayala’s murder trial, Ayala, who is Hispanic, objected that seven of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges were impermissibly race-based under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 . The judge permitted the prosecution to disclose its reasons for the strikes outside the presence of the defense and concluded that the prosecution had valid, race-neutral reasons for the strikes. Ayala was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the California Supreme Court analyzed Ayala’s challenge under both Batson and its state-law analogue, concluding that it was error, as a matter of state law, to exclude Ayala from the hearings. The court held, however, that the error was harmless under state law and that, if a federal error occurred, it too was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18 . Ayala subsequently pressed his claims in federal court. There, the District Court held that even if the ex parte proceedings violated federal law, the state court’s harmlessness finding could not be overturned because it was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d). A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit disagreed and granted Ayala habeas relief. The panel majority held that the ex parte proceedings violated Ayala’s federal constitutional rights and that the error was not harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. 619 , as to at least three of the seven prospective jurors.

Held: Any federal constitutional error that may have occurred by excluding Ayala’s attorney from part of the Batson hearing was harmless. Pp. 9–29.

(a) Even assuming that Ayala’s federal rights were violated, he is entitled to habeas relief only if the prosecution cannot demonstrate harmlessness. Glebe v. Frost, 574 U. S. ___, ___. Under Brecht, federal habeas petitioners “are not entitled to habeas relief based on trial error unless they can establish that it resulted in ‘actual prejudice.’ ” 507 U. S., at 637. Because Ayala seeks federal habeas corpus relief, he must meet the Brecht standard, but that does not mean, as the Ninth Circuit thought, that a state court’s harmlessness determination has no significance under Brecht. The Brecht standard subsumes the requirements that §2254(d) imposes when a federal habeas petitioner contests a state court’s determination that a constitutional error was harmless under Chapman. Fry v. Pliler, 551 U. S. 112 . But Brecht did not abrogate the limitation on federal habeas relief that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 plainly sets out. There is no dispute that the California Supreme Court held that any federal error was harmless under Chapman, and this decision was an “adjudication on the merits” of Ayala’s claim. Accordingly, a federal court cannot grant Ayala relief unless the state court’s rejection of his claim was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Pp. 9–12.

(b) Any federal constitutional error was harmless with respect to all seven prospective jurors. Pp. 12–28.

(1) The prosecution stated that it struck Olanders D., an African-American man, 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 State Supreme Court found, the record amply supports the prosecution’s concerns, and Ayala cannot establish that the ex parte hearing prejudiced him. The Ninth Circuit misunderstood the role of a federal court in a habeas case. That role is not to conduct de novo review of factual findings and substitute the federal court’s own opinions for the determination made on the scene by the trial judge. Pp. 14–18.

(2) The prosecution stated that it struck Gerardo O., a Hispanic man, because he had a poor grasp of English, his answers suggested an unwillingness to impose the death penalty, and he did not appear to get along with other jurors. Each of these reasons was amply supported by the record, and there is no basis for finding that the absence of defense counsel affected the trial judge’s evaluation of the strike. Ayala cannot establish that the ex parte hearing actually prejudiced him or that no fairminded jurist could agree with the state court’s application of Chapman. Once again, the Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on a misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error. The inquiry is not whether the federal habeas court could definitively say that the defense could make no winning arguments, but whether the evidence in the record raised “grave doubt[s]” about whether the trial judge would have ruled differently. O’Neal v. McAninch, 513 U. S. 432 . That standard was not met in this case. Pp. 18–24.

(3) The prosecution stated that it struck Robert M., a Hispanic man, because it was concerned that he could not impose the death penalty and because he had followed a controversial murder trial. Not only was the Ninth Circuit incorrect to suppose that the presence of Ayala’s counsel at the hearing would have made a difference in the trial court’s evaluation of the strike, but the Ninth Circuit failed to mention that defense counsel specifically addressed the issue during voir dire and reminded the judge that Robert M. also made several statements favorable to the death penalty. Thus, the trial judge heard counsel’s arguments and concluded that the record supplied a legitimate basis for the prosecution’s concern. That defense counsel did not have the opportunity to repeat that argument does not create grave doubt about whether the trial court would have decided the issue differently. Pp. 24–26.

(4) With regard to Ayala’s Batson objection about the four remaining prospective jurors who were struck, he does not come close to establishing “actual prejudice” under Brecht or that no fairminded jurist could agree with the California Supreme Court’s decision that excluding counsel was harmless. Pp. 26–28.

756 F. 3d 656, reversed and remanded.

Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., and Thomas, J., filed concurring opinions. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding

Excluding a criminal defendant's attorney from part of a Batson hearing on the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges is harmless error under federal constitutional law, and state courts have the sole authority to determine whether it is harmless error under state law unless their interpretation of the facts is unreasonable.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.