Release Date: January 19, 2011
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Ruling sparing murderer overturned in Harrington v. Richter

In a decision announced today without dissent, the U. S. Supreme Court has reinstated the robbery/murder conviction of a Sacramento man.

The principal issue in this case was whether the Ninth Circuit’s divided en banc ruling, which overturned earlier decisions by a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel, the Federal District Court, and the California Supreme Court, violated a federal law passed to give greater finality to state court judgments in criminal cases.  The July 2009 ruling was written by controversial Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

Today’s Supreme Court opinion, authored by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, rebuked the Ninth Circuit, stating that the California Supreme Court’s ruling to deny the murderer’s claim was “well within the bounds of a reasonable judicial determination.”

The opinion noted that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), specifically section 2254(d), is a bar to relitigation unless a specific exception applies.  It stresses this point stating, “the Court of Appeals gave §2254(d) no operation or function in its reasoning.  Its analysis illustrates a lack of deference to the state court’s determination and an improper intervention in state criminal processes, contrary to the purpose and mandate of AEDPA and to the now well-settled meaning and function of habeas corpus in the federal system.”

The decision utilized arguments from an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief submitted by the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

“For 14 years the Ninth Circuit has evaded the requirements of an important act of Congress. The Supreme Court today took them to the woodshed and deservedly so,” said the Foundation’s Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.

The case involves the conviction of Joshua Richter for the murder of one man and the attempted murder of another during a robbery.

The crime occurred early on December 19, 1994, at the Sacramento home of marijuana dealer Joshua Johnson.  The previous evening, Richter and an accomplice, Christian Branscombe, visited Johnson and his friend Patrick Klein.  After Richter and Branscombe left, Johnson fell asleep in his bedroom while Klein slept on the living room couch.  Early the next morning, Johnson awoke to find Richter and Branscombe stealing his gun safe from the bedroom closet.  At trial, Johnson testified that when he got out of bed, Branscombe shot him, knocking him to the floor.  A moment later Johnson heard another gunshot and the sound of voices outside the house.  When the wounded Johnson entered the living room, he saw Klein lying on the couch bleeding.  In addition to his gun safe, a handgun of Johnson’s and a backpack containing $6,000 were missing.

Police, responding to Johnson’s call, determined that Klein had been shot twice and was dead. Detectives found one .22 caliber shell casing and one .32 caliber shell casing on the living room floor.  They also found blood on the bedroom floor and blood spatter on the wall.  The next day Richter and Branscombe were arrested after police found the gun safe, Johnson’s backpack, and .22 caliber bullets of the same brand used to kill Klein in Richter’s home.  During questioning, Richter told police he was being “set up” and that his pickup had not been at the crime scene.

At trial, the prosecutor introduced evidence including Johnson’s testimony, the stolen items found at Richter’s house, and Richter’s fingerprints on the stolen gun safe.  Medical evidence indicated that Klein had suffered two gunshot wounds.  One was from a .22 caliber gun and the other was from a .32 caliber gun. Prosecution experts testified that, based on the location of the blood and the position of Klein’s body, he had been killed on the couch.  The prosecution theory was that the .32 caliber gun that Branscombe used to shoot Johnson was also used by Branscombe to shoot Klein, and the .22 caliber gun used to shoot Klein was fired by Richter.  On the witness stand, Richter blamed Branscombe for the shootings.  He testified that when he and Branscombe returned to Johnson’s home, he waited outside in his truck while Branscombe went inside.  After hearing gunshots, Richter said he rushed into the house and found Klein’s body on the floor by the bedroom door and Johnson unconscious on the bed.  Richter then reported that Branscombe grabbed the guns and they both fled in Richter’s truck, later throwing the weapons into a marsh.

On appeal, Richter made a number of claims that his trial attorney failed to effectively represent him.  His claims on direct appeal were rejected by the California Court of Appeal, and the California Supreme Court denied review.  Richter then filed his petition for review on habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court. His argument this time was that his attorney failed to challenge the expert testimony indicating that Klein was shot and killed on the couch, which conflicted with Richter’s testimony.  The California Supreme Court summarily denied this claim. Later, on federal habeas corpus, a Federal District Judge and a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit also reviewed and rejected the claim.  Richter’s luck changed when an eleven-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, hearing his appeal en banc, overturned his conviction.  The 7-4 ruling announced that the California Supreme Court’s decision to deny his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, and by inference the decisions of the District Court and the smaller Ninth Circuit panel, were “objectively unreasonable.”

When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear California’s appeal of that ruling, it asked for argument on an additional question—whether a state court’s summary disposition, which does not include a detailed opinion, is entitled to the same deference by the federal courts as a decision with a written opinion receives.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation’s brief argued that a state court’s summary disposition should be presumed to be on the merits, unless otherwise noted, and therefore does qualify for deference from the federal courts.  The Foundation noted that the AEDPA requirement for deference applies to any claim adjudicated on the merits by a state court.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in this case reaffirms that federal courts are barred from relitigating claims properly decided by state courts.  Also, the Court held that summary dispositions, which occur annually in thousands of criminal cases, are entitled to the same protection,” said Scheidegger.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.
The Foundation’s brief is available at:
The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation helped win six United States Supreme Court decisions benefiting law enforcement during the Court’s previous term.