Pending Cert Petitions of Interest

The following pending petitions involve issues of interest to capital habeas litigators:

Ruiz v. Massachusetts, 22-132 (cert. petition filed Aug. 8, 2022)
(case below: 178 N.E.3d 901 (Mass. App.) (table))

Question presented:

     In a criminal trial, “[d]ue process means a jury capable and willing to decide the case solely on the evidence before it, and a trial judge ever watchful to prevent prejudicial occurrences.” Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 217 (1982). Thus, a jury may not consider facts outside the official record in determining a criminal defendant’s guilt or innocence. See, e.g., Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 485 (1978).

     The lower court’s decision in this case offends that basic maxim. After the case was submitted to the jury in proceedings below, the jury foreman posed the following question to the trial judge:

Can we take the defendants[’] body language into consideration? As evidence?

Over petitioner’s repeated objections, but in compliance with settled Massachusetts law on the topic, the judge answered this way:

While not evidence, the jury is entitled to consider any observations you made of the defendants’ demeanor during the trial.

The lower courts are intractably split on the permissibility under the Federal Constitution of such an instruction.

     The question presented is whether the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid judges (or prosecutors) from instructing (or inviting) the jury to take into account a non-testifying criminal defendant’s courtroom demeanor as a basis for finding guilt.

Click here to view the certiorari petition.  The case was distributed for the October 7, 2022 conference.  On September 19, 2022, a response was requested.

Brown v. Louisiana, 22-77 (cert. petition filed July 25, 2022)
(case below: ___ So.3d ___ (La.))

Question presented:

     Where a defendant denies participating in a particular criminal act, is another person’s confession stating that he and someone else committed the act— without mentioning the defendant—favorable and material evidence under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)?

Click here to view Brown's certiorari petition.  The case was distributed for the October 28, 2022 conference.  On October 18, 2022, the record was requested.

Escobar v. Texas, 21-1601 (cert. petition filed June 24, 2022)
(case below: 2022 WL 221497 (Tex. Crim. App.) (unpub.))

Question presented:

     Petitioner Areli Carbajal Escobar was convicted of capital murder in Texas state court largely based on false DNA evidence and sentenced to death. After his conviction, the State of Texas discovered serious deficiencies in the laboratory conducting the DNA testing, ultimately closing the facility altogether. On petitioner’s application for habeas relief, the state habeas court below found that the DNA evidence used to convict him was false, misleading, and unreliable, and material to his conviction. Thus, the court recommended that relief be granted on his federal due process claim. Although the State initially opposed habeas relief, it changed its position when the case reached the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), agreeing that petitioner’s federal due process rights were violated and that he is entitled to have his capital conviction overturned.

     Despite the agreement of petitioner, the prosecution, and the habeas court, the CCA denied relief, holding that petitioner’s federal due process rights were not violated because he had failed to show any reasonable likelihood that the false DNA evidence could have affected the jury’s judgment. In doing so, the CCA did not even acknowledge the State’s contrary view. The question presented is:

Did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals err in holding that the prosecution’s reliance on admittedly false DNA evidence to secure petitioner’s conviction and death sentence is consistent with the federal Due Process clause because there is no reasonable likelihood that the false DNA evidence could have affected the judgment of the jury?

Click here to view the certiorari petition.  Click here to view Brief of Respondent State of Texas in Support of Petitioner.  The case has been distributed for the October 28, 2022 conference.