Release Date:  May 31, 2016
Contact:  Kent S. Scheidegger
(916) 446-0345

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SUPREME COURT REBUKES NINTH CIRCUIT IN CALIFORNIA PRISONER CASE

In a decision announced today, the U. S. Supreme Court summarily reversed the decision of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had overturned the conviction of a murderer. At issue in the case of Johnson v. Lee is the procedural default rule, a California rule that prohibits defendants who fail to raise claims against their conviction or sentence at the initial state appeal from raising them years later on habeas corpus. When such a rule is not respected by the federal courts, it results in additional years of review and possibly the overturning of a valid conviction or sentence. Quoting an earlier decision, the high court noted, “A state’s procedural rules are of vital importance to the orderly administration of its criminal courts; when a federal court permits them to be readily evaded, it undermines the criminal justice system.”

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined the case at the request of the California Attorney General, filing a brief to encourage the case to be accepted for review. In the Foundation’s brief, Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argued that the ruling violated Supreme Court precedent upholding a similar California rule in Walker v. Martin (won by CJLF). The Foundation also suggested that the Supreme Court could avoid a hearing on such an obviously flawed ruling by issuing a summary reversal, which it did today.

In Lee, the Ninth Circuit held that California’s procedural default rule was “inadequate” because the California Supreme Court, when rejecting frivolous claims filed too late, often rejects the claims because they are meritless rather than because they were not raised in the initial appeal. Dismissing such claims on either ground is well within a reviewing court’s authority.

The case involves the 1995 stabbing murders of two women by Paul Carasi and his girlfriend Donna Lee. The victims were Doris Carasi, Paul Carasi’s mother, and Sonia Salinas, Paul Carasi’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. In the months leading up to the murders, Carasi’s ex-girlfriend had left him, he lost custody of his child, and he was ordered to pay child support. He found a new girlfriend, Lee, who divorced her husband to move in with Carasi, and sought a restraining order against his mother because she fought with Lee and was friends with his ex-girlfriend. On more than one occasion, Carasi’s co-workers overheard him say he wished his ex-girlfriend were dead. Three days before the murders, Lee’s co-workers heard her say she was going to do something stupid and would be going to prison for it.

On Mother’s Day, May 14, 1995, Carasi took his mother, ex-girlfriend, and infant child to dinner at a restaurant at the Universal Studios CityWalk in Los Angeles. Later that night, Carasi reported that he had been attacked in the CityWalk parking lot by an unidentified assailant who stabbed his mother and ex-girlfriend to death. Carasi was covered in the victims’ blood. A short time later, Lee called police from a freeway call box five miles away to report that she had been robbed and stabbed. A parking ticket stub from the CityWalk parking lot, along with items taken from the victims and a knife stained with one of the victim’s blood, were found in Lee’s car. Investigators found Lee’s blood at the murder scene and took statements from witnesses who saw Lee in the vicinity of the parking lot at the time of the murders. The day after her arrest, Lee changed her story, telling police she did not know how she had been stabbed. Expert evidence introduced at trial indicated that there had been more than one assailant, and the coroner’s report noted that there had been a vigorous fight between the victims and their attackers.

The jury convicted Carasi and Lee on overwhelming evidence, and later recommended the death penalty for Carasi and life without parole for Lee.

Five years later, Lee presented five claims challenging her conviction in state court on direct appeal, all of which were rejected. A year later, she filed habeas corpus petitions in both state and Federal District Court, raising several new frivolous claims which could have been raised on direct appeal. Eventually both the state court and the Federal District Court held that the claims were barred under California’s procedural default rule. In 2007, Lee filed an amended petition in federal court, adding even more claims which were also held defaulted under the rule. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower courts and ordered the Federal District Court to determine the adequacy of the state rule. After the lower court responded, finding the rule was applied fairly, the Ninth Circuit reversed that finding, deciding that the rule was not adequate and ordered the lower court to review all of Lee’s claims.

“For many years, the Ninth Circuit has required the federal district courts to waste resources and cause delay by deciding over again claims that were properly dismissed by the state courts,” said Scheidegger. “Those claims rarely have anything to do with the defendant’s guilt. It has done this in defiance of Supreme Court precedent. Under today’s decision, this waste and delay must stop.”


CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.
The Johnson v. Lee brief is available on our website at:
http://www.cjlf.org/program/briefs/LeeD.pdf