When reviewing a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, is a federal court required to accept a state court determination of the constitutionality of jury instructions?
In 1994, respondent Cesar Sarausad was convicted of second degree murder in Washington State Court for his role as a driver in a gang-related shooting. At trial, the prosecution argued in its closing that Sarausad could be found guilty of murder under the Washington accomplice liability statute because, even though he only drove the car, if he was "in for a dime," he was "in for a dollar." After repeated requests for clarification on the accomplice liability rule, which the trial judge answered only by referring the jurors back to the Washington accomplice liability statute, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict. Sarausad was convicted; he argued unsuccessfully on direct appeal that the instruction relieved the state of its burden to prove each element of the offense charged. Sarausad eventually sought federal habeas corpus relief, which the Ninth Circuit granted. The State of Washington, seeking to reinstate Sarausad's conviction, petitioned for certiorari from the Supreme Court. In deciding this case, the Supreme Court may determine if a federal court is required to defer to state court determination of state law when interpreting the constitutionality of jury instructions pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
The Washington Supreme Court has repeatedly approved of the pattern accomplice liability jury instructions given in Sarausad’s trial, which mirror the statutory language on accomplice liability under state law. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found a violation of due process based its independent conclusion that the instructions were ambiguous, and that there was a reasonable likelihood a jury could misapply the instructions so as to relieve the prosecution of its burden to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
1. In reviewing a due process challenge to jury instructions brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, must the federal courts accept the state court determination that the instructions fully and correctly set out state law governing accomplice liability?
2. Where the accomplice liability instructions correctly set forth state law, is it an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law to conclude there was no reasonable likelihood that the jury misapplied the instructions so as to relieve the prosecution of the burden of proving all the elements of the crime?
In 1994, respondent Cesar Sarausad and other 23rd Street Diablos gang members drove to a Seattle high school to confront a rival gang. See Sarausad v. Porter, 479 F.3d 672, 674 (9th Cir. 2007). Sarausad drove the lead car with Brian Ronquillo, who had obtained a gun from a friend. See id .Sarausad approached the school and slowed the car as Ronquillo fired several gunshots from the front passenger seat, killing one student and wounding another. See Id. at 675.id.
At trial, Sarausad argued that he expected to go to a fight at the school, not a killing. See Sarausad v. State, 39 P.3d 308, 313 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001). The prosecutor argued an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” theory: because Sarausad knew Ronquillo was going to commit a crime, Sarausad was on the hook for whatever crime Ronquillo committed. See Sarausad, 479 F.3d at 684–85. The trial judge’s jury instructions closely followed Washington’s accomplice liability statute, which provides that a person needs to know only that an action will “promote or facilitate the commission of [another’s] crime” to be guilty of that same crime. Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.08.020. During deliberations, the jury sought clarification on the accomplice liability instructions three times. See Sarausad, 39 P.3d at 316. Over Sarausad’s objection, the judge repeatedly referred the jury back to the instructions already provided. See Id. The jury convicted Sarausad of second degree murder, two counts of attempted second degree murder, and second degree assault. See Sarausad, 479 F.3d at 675.Sarausad was sentenced to over 27 years in state prison. See Id.
The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed Sarausad’s conviction, concluding that both the accomplice liability statute and the jury instructions relied on the “in for a dime, in for a dollar” theory, and that neither the instructions nor the statute required an accomplice to know of the specific crime. See Sarausad, 479 F.3d at 687. The Washington Supreme Court denied Sarausad’s request for further review. See Id. After Sarausad’s last appeal, the Washington Supreme Court issued two decisions clarifying the accomplice liability knowledge requirement. See State v. Roberts, 14 P.3d 713 (Wash. 2000); State v. Cronin, 14 P.3d 752 (Wash. 2000). These Washington Supreme Court decisions held that to be convicted, an accomplice must have “knowledge that [his] conduct would promote or facilitate the crime for which he or she is eventually charged.” Cronin 14 P.3d at 757 (emphasis in original). Taking advantage of these new decisions, Sarausad initiated a collateral attack in the Washington Court of Appeals, which reviewed the accomplice liability jury instructions, held that the instructions were sufficient and that the prosecutor’s statements did not require the trial court to give additional instructions, and upheld Sarausad’s conviction. See Sarausad v. State, 39 P.3d at 319. Again, the Washington Supreme Court denied review. See Sarausad, 479 F.3d at 675.
Prisoners can challenge the lawfulness of their detentions in court by seeking a writ of habeas corpus. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) limits federal courts’ power to grant habeas corpus relief to criminals convicted by state courts. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Having exhausted all possible Washington state court remedies, Sarausad sought federal habeas corpus relief pursuant to the AEDPA. See Sarausad, 479 F.3d at 675. Under the AEDPA, the District Court for the Western District of Washington granted Sarausad’s request for habeas relief, holding that the jury instructions given at trial, “combin[ed] with other factors, unconstitutionally relieved the State of its burden of proof.” See Id. at 676. Washington appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that there was a “reasonable likelihood” that the jury misapplied its instructions and therefore relieved Washington of its burden of proof, violating Sarausad’s constitutional rights. See Sarausad, 479 F.3d at 694.
The State of Washington, through Washington Corrections Center Superintendent Doug Waddington, petitioned for review in the United States Supreme Court. (Habeas corpus proceedings require convicted inmates to challenge the person holding them in custody; in this case, Sarausad is challenging Waddington, his prison’s superintendent. See Wex: Habeas Corpus.) The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 17, 2008, to determine whether the Ninth Circuit could make its own determination on the constitutionality of the jury instructions, or whether it was required to defer to the prior judgment of the Washington state courts. See Questions Presented.
I. Unreasonable Application of Federal Law and Deference to State Courts Under the AEDPA
The writ of habeas corpus allows convicted prisoners to challenge the lawfulness of their imprisonment in court. Prisoners convicted in state criminal proceedings, after unsuccessfully appealing in state courts, can apply for a writ of habeas corpus from a federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Congress limited the circumstances under which federal courts may grant habeas relief to state prisoners, however, with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"). See Id. Under the AEDPA, a federal court may not grant habeas relief in a criminal case that a state court decides on the merits unless the state court decision was (1) "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” or (2) based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). In Williams v. Taylor, the Supreme Court held that under the AEDPA, a state court unreasonably applies clearly established federal law by reaching a conclusion opposite to that of the Supreme Court on a question of law, reaching a conclusion contrary to the Supreme Court upon “materially indistinguishable” facts, or by incorporating the correct legal rule but "appl[ying] it unreasonably to the facts of a particular prisoner's case." 529 U.S. at 405, 407–08.
Washington contends that it was improper for the Ninth Circuit to “second-guess” the Washington state courts' determination that the accomplice liability jury instruction correctly depicted state law. See Brief for Petitioner at 26. Citing Supreme Court cases showing that the state court's application of "clearly established federal law" must be "objectively unreasonable" for federal courts to provide habeas relief, Washington argues that, under the AEDPA, the Ninth Circuit must show high deference to state court decisions in habeas cases. See Id. at 24–25. Further, Washington maintains the Ninth Circuit erred in even attempting to determine if the jury instructions reflected Washington state law, because “[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions.” Id. at 26–27 (quoting Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67–68 (1991)).
Sarausad acknowledges that courts reviewing habeas applications generally defer to state court decisions regarding federal claims, but argues that federal courts may review state decisions that "ignore or improperly frame federal claims." See Brief for Respondent at 23.In addition, Sarausad notes that in Sandstrom v. Montana, the Supreme Court that state courts have final authority on the meaning of state statutes, but not on whether, as in his case, a jury properly understood instructions based on a state statute. See id. at 30.
II. The Knowledge Requirement for Accomplice Liability and Due Process
A. The Knowledge Requirement for Accomplice Liability
Washington and Sarausad agree that the jury instructions in Sarausad’s 1994 trial facially complied with the standards later established in State v. Roberts because Sarausad's instructions required that an accomplice have general knowledge of the specific crime committed. See Brief for Petitioner at 25. However, Sarausad argues that because the Washington Supreme Court did not clarify this knowledge requirement until Robert sand State v. Cronin in 2000, there was reasonable risk that the jury misunderstood the knowledge requirement. See Brief for Respondent at 3, 34–35.
B. Did the Jury’s Application of the Accomplice Liability Statute Deprive Sarausad of Due Process Rights?
Sarausad contends that the Ninth Circuit could properly review the state court's determination that the jury instructions reflected state law because the state court's decision was contrary to clearly established federal law. See Brief for Respondent at 23–26.Sarausad maintains that Supreme Court precedent clearly establishes his right under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause to require a jury to find "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" of every element of the charged offense in order to convict him. Id. at 24 (quoting In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970)). Citing Supreme Court precedent holding that due process is violated when there is a “reasonable likelihood” that a jury's misunderstanding of its instructions lessened the prosecution’s burden of proof, Sarausad argues that the state court's application of the accomplice liability instructions violated his federal due process rights by relieving the prosecution from proving every element of the accomplice liability offense. See Id. at 24–25.
Washington counters that the jury instructions did not violate Sarausad's due process rights because they “did not omit an element of the offense, create a presumption, reduce the burden of proof, or shift the burden to the defendant.” Brief for Petitioner at 28. Washington points out that the Washington Supreme Court approved the same pattern instructions in other proceedings both before Sarausad’s trial and after it decided Roberts. See Brief for Petitioner at 27. In addition, Washington claims the burden of showing a constitutional violation is especially high in this case because the jury instructions properly stated Washington law. See id. at 38–39. Under Cupp v. Naughten, to comprise a due process violation, an instruction must be more than "erroneous" or "undesirable"—it must have "infected the entire trial." See 414 U.S. 141, 146–147 (1973). Washington contends the defense counsel and jury instructions properly emphasized the state’s burden of proof, and so, even if the instructions were imperfect, they could not have infected the entire trial. See Brief for Petitioner at 35–36.
Sarausad contends, however, that jury instructions may be facially valid yet lead to an unconstitutional conviction if prone to “erroneous interpretation.” Brief for Respondent at 26. Sarausad supports this contention by explaining that, in Sandstrom v. Montana, the Supreme Court found a due process violation despite the fact that the Montana Supreme Court had interpreted the instructions “consistently with the federal constitutional requirements.” Id. (citing 442 U.S. 510, 525 (1979)).However, Washington counters that Sandstrom is inapplicable because, in that case, the Court found that the jury instructions created a presumption of fact, whereas the issue in this case is whether the jury misapplied the law out of confusion. See Brief for Petitioner at 36.
Washington also argues that the Supreme Court's language in Gilmore v. Taylor supports its argument that erroneous jury instructions do not implicate habeas relief: “[W]e have never said that the possibility of a jury misapplying state law gives rise to a federal constitutional error." Brief for Petitioner at 33 (quoting 508 U.S. 333, 342 (1993)). Further, Washington contends that the Ninth Circuit improperly held that the jury instructions needed an explanatory sentence to clarify the knowledge requirement because the Supreme Court has not required states to adopt specific language for describing accomplice liability. See Brief for Petitioner at 28–30 (citing Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5 (1994)).
Sarausad argues that Washington misplaces reliance on Gilmorebecause his habeas claim alleges a violation of federal constitutional rights resulting from the Washington courts' failure to properly address the jury’s confusion over instructions based on state law. See Brief for Respondent at 29. He contends that under Estelle v. McGuire, when the confusion of a jury over an element of state law causes the defendant to be deprived of “some constitutional right,” federal courts may intervene. Brief for Respondent at 28 (quoting Estelle, 502 U.S. at 72).
III. Was It Objectively Unreasonable for the Washington Courts to Conclude that the Jury Did Not Misapply State Law?
Sarausad argues that the Washington Court of Appeals ignored compelling evidence that the jury was confused about the accomplice liability knowledge requirement, and was therefore objectively unreasonable in its application of clearly established federal law. See Brief for Respondent at 31. On direct appeal, both Sarausad and Washington acknowledge that the Washington Court of Appeals erroneously stated that Sarausad did not need to know about the gun or potential shooting to be convicted as an accomplice to murder. See Brief for Respondent at 34; Brief for Petitioner at 16. Sarausad argues that during its second review, the Washington Court of Appeals should have found that the jury was reasonably likely to misinterpret the instructions the fact that Court of Appeals itself misinterpreted the knowledge requirement. See Brief for Respondent at 33–34.
In addition, Washington and Sarausad disagree over the effect of the prosecution's closing argument on the jury's understanding of state law. Sarausad contends that the prosecution’s use of the “in for a dime, in for a dollar” language during closing arguments misrepresented the knowledge requirement and was reasonably likely to confuse the jury into altering the burden of proof. See Brief for Respondent at 45. Washington, however, argues that the Sarausad's closing argument alleviated this concern by clearly indicating that Sarausad must have had knowledge that he was facilitating a shooting to be convicted for murder. See Brief for Petitioner at 47. Further, Washington argues the prosecution's entire closing argument prevented confusion by properly emphasizing the theory that Sarausad had general knowledge of the gun and Ronquillo’s intent to commit a shooting. See Brief for Petitioner at 42–44.
The jury's questions to the judge also raise an issue about whether the Washington Court of Appeals acted objectively unreasonably. Washington asserts that under Supreme Court precedent in Weeks v. Angelone, the court is not constitutionally required to do anything more than refer the jury to proper instructions, as the judge did during Sarausad's initial trial. See Brief for Petitioner at 50. Washington argues that under Weeks, “[t]he law presumes that the jury, having reread the instructions pursuant to the court’s responses, understood and correctly applied the instructions.” Id. Because the jury was able to eventually reach a verdict without further clarification, Washington argues it must have ultimately understood the instructions. Brief for Petitioner at 50. Sarausad claims, however, that the jury's repeated inquires show that it was confused and likely to misapply the law. See Brief for Respondent at 40–42. Sarausad points out that the Weeks jury expressed confusion over two possible alternatives in their instructions, and the court referred the jury to a specific paragraph that clearly dispelled the confusion. See Id. at 41 (citing 528 U.S. at 228–29). Sarausad claims that in his case, simply telling the jury to reread the instructions could have done nothing to resolve the jury's confusion, making the state court's conclusion objectively unreasonable. See Brief for Respondent at 40 (quoting Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154, 170 (1994) (O'Connor, J., concurring)).
When reviewing a state court criminal conviction, is a federal court required to defer to the state court’s interpretation of federal constitutional law? In Waddington v. Sarausad, the United States Supreme Court has the opportunity to explore whether, and to what extent, federal courts conducting habeas review can second-guess state court determinations of state law.
Petitioner Doug Waddington, on behalf of the State of Washington (“Washington”), contends that it was improper for the Ninth Circuit to “second-guess” the Washington courts on an issue of state law in a habeas corpus petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). See Brief for Petitioner at 26. Respondent Cesar Sarausad argues that the Washington state courts’ application of accomplice liability instructions violated his federal due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment by relieving the prosecution from meeting the burden of proof for every element of his alleged offense. See Brief for Respondent at 20.
On a basic level, there are two possible outcomes in this case that will directly affect Sarausad and Washington. If the Supreme Court affirms the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, Sarausad’s conviction will be overturned, and he will be released from prison unless Washington decides to retry him. See Sarausad v. Porter, 479 F.3d 672, 694 (9th Cir. 2007).If the Supreme Court reverses the Ninth Circuit, Sarausad will remain in Washington state custody. In addition to rulings immediately determining Sarausad’s freedom or imprisonment, the Supreme Court could also remand the case to a lower court for further proceedings.
However, the potential effects of this case extend beyond Sarausad and Washington. Cases that address the division between state and federal powers can have broad implications for federalism. A finding favoring Washington could expand the deference that federal courts give to state courts’ interpretation of the constitutionality of their own states’ criminal laws. See Brief for Respondent at 20–23. Conversely, a finding for Sarausad could broaden, even slightly, federal courts’ power to intervene in state criminal proceedings under the AEDPA. See Brief for Petitioner at 20–23.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), a non-profit professional bar association with a mission to “ensure justice and due process for the accused,” submitted this case’s only amicus curiae brief, on behalf of Sarausad. Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("NACDL") in Support of Respondent at 2. According to the NACDL, the ambiguous jury instructions fundamentally violated Sarausad’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. See Id. at 5. Therefore, the NACDL argues, the Ninth Circuit appropriately intervened and granted habeas relief. See Id. The NACDL’s approach would require a jury to have a “substantively accurate understanding” of the law in the jury instructions to satisfy the Sixth Amendment. See id. at 4. A Supreme Court decision consistent with this position could affect lower state and federal courts, as it may be difficult to determine a jury’s level of understanding of the law.
In recent terms, the United States Supreme Court has often reversed Ninth Circuit decisions; it reversed eight of the ten Ninth Circuit cases it heard during the 2007–2008 term. See Dan Levine, 9th Circuit Racks Up Usual High Reversal Rate in Supreme Court Term, The Recorder (June 30, 2008). In recent years, these Supreme Court reversals have included Ninth Circuit grants of habeas corpus relief. See, e.g., Lyle Denniston, Is AEDPA Unconstitutional?, Scotusblog (May 5, 2005); Jason Hoppin, High Court Reverses 9th Circuit Three Times in One Day, The Recorder, Nov. 5, 2002. The Supreme Court, showing continued interest in Ninth Circuit habeas cases, scheduled oral arguments in Chrones v. Pulido, another jury instruction-related Ninth Circuit habeas case, for the same day as Waddington v. Sarausad. See Question Presented, Chrones v. Pulido (Docket No. 07-544). With its decision in Waddington v. Sarausad, the Supreme Court will continue to develop the outlines of federal courts’ power to grant habeas corpus relief in state court cases.
This Supreme Court's decision in this case may clarify the extent to which federal courts reviewing applications for habeas corpus have the power to review constitutional due process determinations made by state courts. A finding for the State of Washington could limit that power to situations in which a state court's decision was contrary to Supreme Court precedent; a finding for Sarausad could increase that power. The outcome of this case could alter courts' understanding of what constitutes "clearly established federal law," and clarify the threshold for "unreasonable applications" of federal law when a state court determines constitutionality of its state law.
The authors would like to thank Professor John Blume for his assistance in understanding federal habeas corpus.