Supreme Court issues a per curiam reversal in a Ninth Circuit non-capital habeas case
Posted on: 6/4/2013 05:03:28 PM by Peoples

On June 3, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in Nevada et. al., v. Jackson, 539 U.S. ___ (2013) reversing the Ninth Circuit's grant of habeas relief.  Jackson had been charged with rape and other serious charges involving his ex-girlfriend.  His defense was that the alleged victim had fabricated the sexual assault.  In support of the defense, Jackson sought to introduce testimony and police reports showing that the alleged victim had called the police on several prior occasions claiming that Jackson had raped or otherwise assaulted her.  The police had been unable to corroborate many of these prior allegations, and in several cases they expressed skepticism of her claims.  The trial court permitted Jackson to cross-examine the alleged victim about the prior incidents but denied his request to admit the police reports or call as witnesses the officers involved.  Jackson was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  On appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court denied Jackson's claim that the exclusion of evidence violated his federal constitutional right to present a complete defense.   The Ninth Circuit concluded, however, that the Nevada Supreme Court's ruling was an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent, finding that the impact of the State's rules of evidence on the defense was disproprtionate to the state's interest in exclusion of the evidence.

The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that "the State Supreme Court’s application of our clearly established precedents was reasonable."  It first noted that the state court in upholding exclusion of the evidence had applied a state rule that was "akin to the widely accepted rule of evidence law that generally precludes the admission of evidence of specific instances of a witness’ conduct to prove the witness’ character for untruthfulness. "  Further, the "constitutional propriety of this rule cannot be seriously disputed."   

The Court then pointed out that Nevada does have a limited exception to the rule in sexual assault cases but in order to be allowed to present extrinsic evidence to prove past false allegations following a denial of them by the alleged victim, the defendant must first file a written notice and the trial court must hold a hearing.  Here, Jackson had failed to file the required notice and the state court had upheld exclusion of the evidence on that basis.   The Court found that it had not issued a decision clearly establishing that such a notice requirement was unconstitutional.  "Nor, contrary to the reasoning of the Ninth Circuit majority, . . . do our cases clearly establish that the Constitution requires a case-by-case balancing of interests before such a rule can be enforced."  The Supreme Court next noted that some of the exluded evidence related to allegations of prior assaults that were not sexual in nature.  Rather than simply invoke the rule prohibitting admission of extrinsic evidence of a witness' prior conduct, the state supreme court "reasoned that the proffered evidence had little impeachment value becauseat most it showed simply that the victim’s reports couldnot be corroborated."  The rationale for the rule excluding extrinsic evidence of specific instances of a witness’ conduct to impeach the witness’ credibility is that it may confuse the jury, unfairly embarrass the alleged victim, surprise the prosecution, and unduly prolong the trial. "No decision of this Court clearly establishes that the exclusion of such evidence for such reasons in a particular case violates the Constitution."  

In finding Jackson entitled to habeas relief, the Ninth Circuit had relied in part on two its past decision that had in turn relied on Supreme Court precedent concerning the constitutionality of limitations on cross-examination.  The Supreme Court responded: "[T]his Court has never held that the Confrontation Clause entitles a criminal defendant to introduce extrinsic evidence for impeachment purposes." (Emphasis in original.)