May 26, 2016

Supreme Court follows Legislature’s lead, grants habeas relief it had previously denied

In In re Richards, the Supreme Court today grants habeas corpus relief to, and vacates the murder conviction of, a defendant whose habeas corpus petition a 4-3 court rejected four years ago.  The unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye states that the reason for the opposite result now is the intervening action of the Legislature in amending a statute to overrule the court’s first decision.  The opinion recognizes “it is apparent that the Legislature agreed with the dissent’s conclusion in” the court’s first Richards opinion.

The court originally held the defendant was not entitled to habeas corpus relief from a murder conviction that had been based in part on bite-mark testimony by a dental expert that, post-conviction, had been recanted by the expert himself and discredited by other experts based on newly available computer technology.  (In re Richards (2012) 55 Cal.4th 948.)  The majority concluded the incriminating expert testimony was not “false evidence” within the meaning of the habeas corpus statute.  Two years later, the Legislature changed the definition of “false evidence” to “include opinions of experts that have either been repudiated by the expert who originally provided the opinion at a hearing or trial or that have been undermined by later scientific research or technological advances.”

Justice Goodwin Liu writes a concurring opinion and Justice Carol Corrigan writes a separate concurring opinion to critique Justice Liu’s opinion.  Justice Liu states that, in evaluating the importance of the bite-mark testimony, “it is also relevant that two previous juries were unable to reach a verdict without this evidence.”  Justice Corrigan responds that “it is very difficult to read any significance into the fact that two other juries hung in this case.  Juries fail to agree for a variety of reasons and the rules of evidence prohibit inquiry into the jurors’ subjective reasoning process.”

The court reverses the Fourth District, Division Two, Court of Appeal, which had reversed the superior court’s grant of habeas corpus relief.  In the first Richards opinion, of course, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal.

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