Release Date:  October 13, 2008
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument in Hedgpeth v. Pulido scheduled for Wednesday, October 15

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear California’s appeal of a federal court ruling which overturned the murder conviction of a San Mateo man.  At issue in Hedgpeth v. Pulido (formerly titled Chrones v. Pulido) is whether a federal court, reviewing a case on habeas corpus, can overturn a conviction for an error that was very unlikely to have made any difference in the case.

“Following a thorough review of his claims in the state courts, the Ninth Circuit applied a standard of proof so low that mere speculation about what some jurors might have thought 15 years ago was enough to overturn the conviction,” said Kent Scheidegger, who authored an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

The case involves the 1993 conviction and life sentence of Michael Robert Pulido, for the robbery and murder of Ramon Flores, a cashier at a San Francisco Bay area Shell gas station.

According to court records, Flores was murdered in the early morning hours of May 24, 1992, by a gunshot to the head.  The following day, the gas station cash register was found on the side of a road with Pulido’s fingerprints on it.

Shortly after the murder, Pulido was arrested on an auto theft charge.  While in custody, he volunteered information about the crime and led police to some discarded .45 caliber cartridges which appeared to have come from the same gun used in the murder.  Initially, Pulido blamed the robbery and murder on several people, but in a later telephone conversation with his uncle, Michael Aragon, he said that he committed the robbery by himself.

At the time of the murder, Pulido was staying at Aragon’s house.  Aragon lived there with his girlfriend and their children.  At the trial, Aragon and two of his children testified to seeing Pulido with a .45 caliber pistol.  They also testified to hearing Pulido say that a nearby Shell station would be easy to rob because the cashier was always asleep.

Aragon and his girlfriend testified that Pulido was home on the night of May 23 when they went to bed.  When they awoke at 3:00 a.m. on the 24th to tend to their baby, Pulido was gone.  Later that morning, they found Pulido asleep in the living room with his clothes and shoes on.  He eventually admitted to Aragon how, early in the morning, he bought a Coke at the Shell station, then shot the cashier in the face and took the cash register.

Pulido denied this on the witness stand, testifying that Aragon had taken his gun and entered the Shell station alone early that morning, supposedly to buy some cigarettes, while he stayed in the car.  He heard a gunshot and ran inside to find the victim on the floor and Aragon holding the gun.  They left in Aragon’s car with the cash register on Pulido’s lap.  He claimed that Aragon forced him at gunpoint to open the register, give him the money and throw the register along the road.  The defense attorney also attacked Aragon’s credibility, presenting evidence that he was a liar, a drug user, and a thief.

Evidence introduced by the prosecution included Pulido’s fingerprints on the cash register and on a can of Coke found on the gas station counter.  No fingerprints from Aragon were on the cash register or the Coke can.  Pulido testified that he never touched a Coke can on the morning of the murder and that perhaps he handled the can when he was visiting the station on an earlier occasion.

Probably recognizing that both the defendant and Aragon were liars, the jury convicted Pulido of the robbery and the murder, but could not agree whether he had personally used the gun.  He was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

The conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal by the Court of Appeal and later by a unanimous California Supreme Court.  In its decision, the Court clarified California’s felony-murder law, announcing that 1) an accomplice could be found guilty of felony murder if he was a conspirator who aided and abetted in the felony at the time of the killing; but that 2) a person who was initially unaware that a robbery was planned, and only participated after someone was killed, could not be an accomplice to murder.  Because this was a new definition of the law, the trial court’s jury instructions, three years earlier, did not include this second point.  However, the Court determined that, in light of other specific findings made by the jury showing they rejected Pulido’s “late joiner” story, this error was harmless.

Pulido’s error claims were also rejected by the California Supreme Court on state habeas corpus.  In 1999, he filed his federal habeas corpus petition, and in 2005, a district judge finally ruled on it, overturning the conviction due to the error in the jury instructions.  Later, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, citing its own precedent which provides the defendant with a unique standard for determining when an error is harmful, different from the standard established by the U. S. Supreme Court.

CJLF has joined California’s appeal to encourage the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.  The Foundation argues that the lower court failed to follow the standard announced by the high court’s 1993 holding in Brecht v. Abrahamson (won by CJLF), which requires that claims reviewed on federal habeas corpus be accompanied by stronger evidence of harm to the defendant’s case than is necessary on direct appeal to the state appellate courts.  Under this standard, sometimes called the Kotteakos standard, the question is whether the error “had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”

“In this case, it is clear that the jurors rejected Pulido’s story and found he was a party to the robbery and murder,” said Scheidegger.  “The trial judge’s failure to predict a change in the law made no difference in this case and is no reason to overturn this conviction,” he added.