Federal habeas relief granted to two California death row inmates

On November 25, 2019, United States District Court Judge Otis D. Wright, II of the Central District of California granted federal habeas relief to Anthony Oliver on a Batson claim.  Oliver v. Davis, 2:10-cv-08404-ODW (C.D. Cal. Nov. 25, 2019) - Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus.  Oliver, a Black man, was convicted and sentenced to death in Los Angeles County for a double murder and the attempted murder of a third victim.  All victims were Black.  Oliver's mistrial request was granted during the initial trial proceedings following the verdicts of acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case which resulted in "civil unrest" in Los Angeles.  During the subsequent jury selection proceedings, Oliver raised several challenges to the prosecution's removal of seven Black prospective jurors.  Looking only to one of these prospective jurors, and after engaging in comparative juror analysis as had the California Supreme Court, Judge Wright ruled that " the only finding supported by the record is that the prosecutor’s excusal of V.H. was 'motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.' (Citation omitted.)  Petitioner has shown that the California Supreme Court made an unreasonable determination of the facts under § 2254(d)(2) in denying his Batson claim and has shown clear and convincing evidence to rebut the presumption of correctness under § 2254(e)(1)."  

On November 22, 2019, United States District Court Judge S. James Otero of the Central District of California granted federal habeas relief as to the death sentence of Mary Ellen Samuels based on trial counsel's ineffective assistance in failing to limit and exclude the mass of bad character evidence that was admitted during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial.  Samuels v. Espinoza, 2:10-cv-03225-SJO (C.D. Cal. Nov. 22, 2019) - Order Denying in Part and Granting in Part Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus. Samuels was convicted of soliciting and conspiring in the murders of Robert Samuels, her husband, and James Bernstein, her husband's alleged killer.  The jury returned a verdict of death after almost five days of deliberations.  The sole prosecution witness at the penalty phase was the sister of Samuels' deceased husband who provided relatively brief victim impact testimony.  The prosecution relied overwhelmingly on the guilt phase evidence in seeking a death sentence.  "The bulk of the objectionable evidence concerned Petitioner's use of cocaine and marijuana, her daughter Nicole's use of cocaine and Petitioner's provision of cocaine to her, Petitioner's provision of cocaine to Nicole's friends, alcohol use by Nicole and her underage friends while out with Petitioner, and photographs Petitioner took with Nicole to enter a "cheesecake photo" contest. The evidence was not relevant to the crimes charged, even considering Nicole's alleged involvement in the crimes and considering relevance broadly."  Reviewing the record, Judge Otero concluded that "[h]ad counsel adequately objected and refrained from introducing the evidence at the guilt phase of trial, there is a reasonable probability that the trial court would have excluded it. There is also a reasonable probability that the jury would have returned a verdict for life without the possibility of parole."  Further, the claims satisfy the limitations on relief in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) because "[i]t would be unreasonable to conclude that the evidence was not prejudicial when considered at the penalty phase of trial or that counsel acted strategically in presenting or failing to object to it."