In Arizona capital case, 9th Circuit finds Ring violation was not harmless and remands for grant of sentencing relief
Posted on: 7/26/2013 04:02:03 PM by Peoples
In Murdaugh v. Ryan, 10-99020 (9th Cir. July 26, 2013), the Ninth Circuit (Nelson with Reinhardt and M. Smith) reversed the denial of habeas relief as to Michael Murdaugh’s death sentence after ruling that the violation of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002) had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the sentencing decision.  

In reaching this decision, the panel had to first decide the scope of Ring’s holding.  The narrow reading of Ring advocated by the warden limited it to requiring only a jury determination of the presence or absence of aggravating factors required by Arizona law for imposition of the death penalty.  The panel concluded, however, that the Supreme Court’s decision was broader, requiring a jury finding on any fact upon which an increase in the defendant’s punishment is contingent.  Because Arizona law precluded a sentence of death without a finding that there were no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, the panel held that defendants were entitled to a jury finding not only on the existence of aggravating factors, but also on whether mitigating circumstances called for leniency.  

Turning to harmless error, the panel applied the test of Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993) and asked whether a rational jury could have found that the facts called for leniency.  It was undisputed that an aggravating factor concerning a prior murder was applicable.  At issue was the aggravating factor involving a killing in an especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner.  The panel rejected Murdaugh’s argument that no rational jury could have found that aggravating factor applicable to the capital offense.  The panel agreed with Murdaugh, however, that a rational jury could have found that the evidence established the statutory mitigating factor of significantly impaired capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of conduct or to conform conduct to the requirements of the law and consequently imposed a life sentence.  (There had been  evidence presented concerning Murdaugh’s use of methamphetamine at the time of the offense.)  Although the panel conceded that a reasonable jury could have agreed with the trial court that the facts surrounding the murder undermined the evidence of drug impairment, it noted that a rational juror could also have found, in contrast, that Murdaugh’s actions did not evince a sober mind.  “That a rational jury might have found that the evidence established [a statutory mitigator] is sufficient to establish prejudice under Brecht.”  The Arizona Supreme Court’s finding that the error was harmless cast no doubt on the panel’s opposite conclusion in light of the state supreme court’s failure to consider evidence in the record that provided a causal link between Murdaugh’s drug use and the murder.  “Had the Arizona Supreme Court considered all the evidence in conducting its harmless error review, it would have been impossible to conclude that no rational jury could have found the [impaired capacity mitigator].”

The panel went on to affirm the district court’s denial of relief on other claims.