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Contreras v. Sisto

June 15, 2010




Petitioner, Ernest Contreras, is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is currently serving an indeterminate sentence of twenty-four years to life following his 1981 conviction in Riverside County Superior Court for attempted murder and second degree murder with the use of a firearm. Here, petitioner does not challenge the constitutionality of that conviction, but rather, the execution of his sentence, and specifically, the August 24, 2006 decision by the Board of Parole Hearings finding him unsuitable for parole.


Petitioner contends that the Board's decision was unsupported by any relevant or reliable evidence. Petitioner further contends that there was no rational nexus or link between the reasons cited by the Board for denying parole and the evidence used to support it. Petitioner concludes that the Board's decision was arbitrary and capricious, in violation of his federal right to due process. After careful consideration of the record and applicable law, it is recommended that this petition for writ of habeas corpus relief be denied.


The basic facts of Petitioner's life crime were summarized from the Board Report's Statement of Facts at his August 24, 2006 parole suitability hearing:

On February 28, 1981, inmate Contreras was attending a wedding reception at the Pedley Town Hall in Riverside County, California. While at this wedding, Contreras got involved in a physical altercation with other attendees of this gathering. During the course of this altercation, inmate Contreras was threatened with a knife and told by other attendees to leave the event. As Contreras left, he randomly fired a 38-caliber handgun into the group that he had been fighting with and struck two victims. Katherine Perez, age 24, was shot in the heart and died at the scene. Alfonso Alcola (phonetic) was struck with a bullet that entered his right side and exited through his left side, seriously wounding him. He recovered from his wounds. . . . The Prisoner was interviewed on December 6th of 2004 and told his counselor his version of the circumstances of the offense, which were somewhat consistent with the facts mentioned in the police report. Inmate Contreras stated that his friend had got [sic] into an altercation with several people at the wedding and that he had come to the aid of his friend. He also indicated that he, Contreras, fired the shots after the vehicle in which he was riding and [sic] had been wedged in traffic. A number of individuals with whom he had been fighting with were advancing and started throwing bottles at them. Contreras did say that there was a discrepancy in his version in that Contreras claims that he did not fire the weapon randomly or directly at the victims, but that he fired the weapon into the ground where the crowd of people were pursuing him. It's this inmate's statement that the victims were hit with a ricochet off the gravel driveway. (Transcript of August 24, 2006 Hearing, Pet. Ex. C. at 11-12.)

Petitioner was received into state prison on December 24, 1981. His minimum eligible parole date passed on June 4, 1995. On August 24, 2006, Petitioner appeared before the Board of Parole Hearings (the "Board") for his eighth subsequent parole hearing. After considering various positive and negative suitability factors, including the nature of the commitment offense, the panel concluded that Petitioner would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released, and thus he was not suitable for parole. Petitioner sought habeas corpus relief in the Riverside County Superior Court. The petition was denied without statement of a reasoned explanation. The superior court held that the Board's decision was supported by the record and was not, therefore, arbitrary or capricious. Petitioner then sought relief in the state appellate courts. The California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District denied the petition summarily. The California Supreme Court denied review. Petitioner filed this federal petition for writ of habeas corpus on February 19, 2008. Respondent filed an answer on June 29, 2009, and Petitioner filed a traverse on August 4, 2009.


This case is governed by the provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), which applies to all petitions for writ of habeas corpus filed after its enactment on April 24, 1996. Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 326 (1997); Jeffries v. Wood, 114 F.3d 1484, 1499 (9th Cir. 1997). Under AEDPA, an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody under a judgment of a state court may be granted only for violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 375 n. 7 (2000). Federal habeas corpus relief is not available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings unless the state court's adjudication of the claim:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Although "AEDPA does not require a federal habeas court to adopt any one methodology," Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71 (2003), there are certain principles which guide its application.

First, AEDPA establishes a "highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings." Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002). Accordingly, when determining whether the law applied to a particular claim by a state court was contrary to or an unreasonable application of "clearly established federal law," a federal court must review the last reasoned state court decision. Robinson v. Ignacio, 360 F.3d 1044, 1055 (9th Cir. 2004); Avila v. Galaza, 297 F.3d 911, 918 (9th Cir. 2002). Provided that the state court adjudicated petitioner's claims on the merits, its decision is entitled to deference, no matter how brief. Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 76; Downs v. Hoyt, 232 F.3d 1031, 1035 (9th Cir. 2000). Conversely, when it is clear that a state court has not reached the merits of a petitioner's claim, or has denied the claim on procedural grounds, AEDPA's deferential standard does not apply and a federal court must review the claim de novo. Nulph v. Cook, 333 F.3d 1052, 1056 (9th Cir. 2003); Pirtle v. Morgan, 313 F.3d 1160, 1167 (9th Cir. 2002).

Second, "AEDPA's, 'clearly established Federal law' requirement limits the area of law on which a habeas court may rely to those constitutional principles enunciated in U.S. Supreme Court decisions." Robinson, 360 F.3d at 155-56 (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 381). In other words, "clearly established Federal law" will be " the governing legal principle or principles set forth by [the U.S. Supreme] Court at the time a state court renders its decision." Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 64. It is appropriate, however, to examine lower court decisions when determining what law has been "clearly ...

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