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Lopez v. Smith

United States Supreme Court

October 6, 2014

RAUL LOPEZ, WARDEN, Petitioner
v.
MARVIN VERNIS SMITH

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

DECISION: Relief held unavailable under 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254(d)(1), as Supreme Court had not clearly established that accused, once adequately apprised of possible aiding-and-abetting conviction, could be deprived of Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by prosecution's focus on another theory at trial.

Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan.

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

When a state prisoner seeks federal habeas relief on the ground that a state court, in adjudicating a claim on the merits, [135 S.Ct. 2] misapplied federal law, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court's decision was " contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). We have emphasized, time and again, that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death [190 L.Ed.2d 3] Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is " clearly established." See, e.g., Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. __, __, 133 S.Ct. 1446, 185 L.Ed.2d 540 (2013) ( per curiam ). Because the Ninth Circuit failed to comply with this rule, we reverse its decision granting habeas relief to respondent Marvin Smith.

I

Respondent was arrested for the murder of his wife, Minnie Smith. On December 15, 2005, Mrs. Smith was found dead in the home she shared with respondent, and it was determined that she was killed by a massive blow to the head from a fireplace log roller. The home appeared to have been ransacked, and valuable jewelry was missing.

The State charged respondent with first-degree murder and offered substantial incriminating evidence at trial. The prosecution presented evidence that respondent " was unfaithful to his wife for many years, that his wife was threatening to divorce him, and that he told one of his former employees . . . that the 'only way' he or his wife would get out of their marriage was 'to die,' because he was 'not going to give [Mrs. Smith] half of what [he] got so some other man can live off of it.'" 731 F.3d 859, 862-863 (CA9 2013) (second alteration in original). Respondent's DNA was also found on the murder weapon, pieces of duct tape found near the body, and a burned matchstick that was found in the bedroom and that may have been used to inflict burns on the body. See id., at 863; see also People v. Smith, 2010 WL 4975500, *1-*2 (Cal.App., Dec. 8, 2010). The missing jewelry was discovered in the trunk of respondent's car, wrapped in duct tape from the same roll that had provided the pieces found near the body. See 731 F.3d, at 863. Respondent's DNA was found on the duct tape in his trunk. See Smith, 2010 WL 4975500, at *2. In addition, a criminologist testified that the ransacking of the Smiths' home appeared to have been staged. See 731 F.3d, at 863.

Respondent defended in part on the basis that he could not have delivered the fatal blow due to rotator cuff surgery several weeks before the murder. See ibid. (He mounted this defense despite the fact that police had observed him wielding a 6-foot-long 2 by 4 to pry something out of a concrete slab at a construction site the week after the murder. See Smith, 2010 WL 4975500, at *1.) The defense also suggested that one of respondent's former employees had committed the crime to obtain money to pay a debt he owed respondent. See 731 F.3d, at 863.

At the close of evidence, the prosecution requested an aiding-and-abetting instruction, and the trial court agreed to give such an instruction. During closing argument, the prosecutor contended that respondent was physically able to wield the log roller that had killed Mrs. Smith, but he also informed the jury that, even if respondent had not delivered the fatal blow, he could still be convicted on an aiding-and-abetting theory. See id., at 864. The jury convicted respondent of first-degree murder without specifying which theory of guilt it adopted.

[190 L.Ed.2d 4] After a series of state-court proceedings not relevant here, the California Court of [135 S.Ct. 3] Appeal affirmed respondent's conviction. The state court rejected respondent's assertion that he had inadequate notice of the possibility of conviction on an aiding-and-abetting theory. The court explained that " 'an accusatory pleading charging a defendant with murder need not specify the theory of murder on which the prosecution intends to rely,'" and noted that the " information charged defendant with murder in compliance with the governing statutes." Smith, 2010 WL 4975500, at *6-*7. Furthermore, the court held that " even if this case required greater specificity concerning the basis of defendant's liability, the evidence presented at his preliminary examination provided it." Id., Id. at *7. The upshot was that " the information and preliminary examination testimony adequately notified defendant he could be prosecuted for murder as an aider and abettor." Id., Id. at *8. The California Supreme Court denied respondent's petition for review.

Respondent filed a petition for habeas relief with the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The Magistrate Judge recommended granting relief, and the District Court summarily adopted the Magistrate Judge's recommendation.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court acknowledged that the " information charging [respondent] with first-degree murder was initially sufficient to put him on notice that he could be convicted either as a principal or as an aider-and-abettor," because under California law " aiding and abetting a crime is the same substantive offense as perpetrating the crime." 731 F.3d, at 868. But the Ninth Circuit nevertheless concluded that respondent's Sixth Amendment and due process right to notice had been violated because it believed the prosecution (until it requested the aiding-and-abetting jury instruction) had tried the case only on the theory that respondent himself had delivered the fatal blow. See id., at 869.

The Ninth Circuit did not purport to identify any case in which we have found notice constitutionally inadequate because, although the defendant was initially adequately apprised of the offense against him, the prosecutor focused at trial on one potential theory of liability at the expense of another. Rather, it found the instant case to be " indistinguishable from" the Ninth Circuit's own decision in Sheppard v. Rees, 909 F.2d 1234 (1989), which the court thought " faithfully applied the principles enunciated by the Supreme Court." 731 F.3d, at 868. The court also rejected, as an " unreasonable determination of the facts," 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254(d)(2), the California Court of Appeal's conclusion that preliminary examination ...


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