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Mondragon v. Martell

November 23, 2010

LARRY MONDRAGON, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHAEL MARTELL, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge

AMENDED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

I. Introduction

Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding without counsel with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In 1983 petitioner was convicted of second degree murder. Petitioner is serving a sentence of 20 years to life.

In the instant action, petitioner challenges the October 2008 decision by the California Board of Parole Hearings ("BPH") finding him unsuitable for parole. This was petitioner's tenth subsequent suitability hearing. (Dkt. No. 9-1, at 87 of 119.) This action is proceeding on the original petition filed by petitioner on February 11, 2010. Petitioner alleges that there was insufficient evidence to support the decision finding him unsuitable for parole.

On October 8, 2010, the undersigned recommended that the petition be granted and directed the BPH to set a parole date for petitioner within thirty days. On October 12, 2010, in Haggard v. Curry, No. 10-16819, 2010 WL 4015006 (9th Cir. Oct. 12, 2010), the Ninth Circuit held that the appropriate remedy following a finding that the BPH's decision was not supported by some evidence is an order that the BPH conduct another eligibility hearing at which the prisoner's rights are respected. On October 21, 2010, respondent filed objections arguing, in part, that the remedy ordered in the October 8, 2010 findings and recommendations was inconsistent with Haggard v. Curry. Accordingly, the undersigned issues the amended findings and recommendations which include the proper remedy as discussed in Haggard v. Curry.

II. Anti-Terrorrism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA")

In Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000), the Supreme Court defined the operative review standard in a habeas corpus action brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Justice O'Connor's opinion for Section II of the opinion constitutes the majority opinion of the court. There is a dichotomy between "contrary to" clearly established law as enunciated by the Supreme Court, and an "unreasonable application of" that law. Id. at 405. "Contrary to" clearly established law applies to two situations: (1) where the state court legal conclusion is opposite that of the Supreme Court on a point of law; or (2) if the state court case is materially indistinguishable from a Supreme Court case, i.e., on point factually, yet the legal result is opposite.

"Unreasonable application" of established law, on the other hand, applies to mixed questions of law and fact, that is the application of law to fact where there are no factually on point Supreme Court cases which mandate the result for the precise factual scenario at issue. Id. at 407-08. It is this prong of the AEDPA standard of review which directs deference be paid to state court decisions. While the deference is not blindly automatic, "the most important point is that an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of law....[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable." Id. at 410-11 (emphasis in original). The habeas corpus petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating the objectively unreasonable nature of the state court decision in light of controlling Supreme Court authority. Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19 (2002).

"Clearly established" law is law that has been "squarely addressed" by the United States Supreme Court. Wright v. Van Patten, 552 U.S. 120 (2008). Thus, extrapolations of settled law to unique situations will not qualify as clearly established. See e.g., Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 76 (2006) (established law not permitting state sponsored practices to inject bias into a criminal proceeding by compelling a defendant to wear prison clothing or by unnecessary showing of uniformed guards does not qualify as clearly established law when spectators' conduct is the alleged cause of bias injection).

The state courts need not have cited to federal authority, or even have indicated awareness of federal authority, in arriving at their decision. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3 (2002). Nevertheless, the state decision cannot be rejected unless the decision itself is contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, established Supreme Court authority. Id. An unreasonable error is one in excess of even a reviewing court's perception that "clear error" has occurred. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76 (2003). Moreover, the established Supreme Court authority reviewed must be a pronouncement on constitutional principles, or other controlling federal law, as opposed to a pronouncement of statutes or rules binding only on federal courts. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. at 9.

However, where the state courts have not addressed the constitutional issue in dispute in any reasoned opinion, the federal court will independently review the record in adjudication of that issue. "Independent review of the record is not de novo review of the constitutional issue, but rather, the only method by which we can determine whether a silent state court decision is objectively unreasonable." Himes v. Thompson, 336 F.3d 848, 853 (9th Cir. 2003).

When reviewing a state court's summary denial of a claim, the court "looks through" the summary disposition to the last reasoned decision. Shackleford v. Hubbard, 234 F.3d 1072, 1079 n.2 (9th Cir. 2000).

III. Discussion

A. Insufficient Evidence

Petitioner alleges that there was insufficient evidence to support the BPH's 2008 decision finding him unsuitable for parole. Petitioner raised this claim in a habeas corpus petition filed in the Contra Costa Superior Court. (Dkt. Nos. 9-1, 9-2). The Contra Costa Superior Court issued a reasoned decision denying this petition. (Dkt. 9-3). The California Court of Appeal and California Supreme Court issued orders summarily denying petitioner's habeas petitions challenging the BPH's 2008 decision. (Dkt. Nos. 9-6, 9-9.) Accordingly, the undersigned considers whether the denial of petitioner's claim by the Superior Court was an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court authority.

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits state action that "deprive[s] a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 2. A person alleging a due process violation must demonstrate that he or she was deprived of a protected liberty or property interest, and then show that the procedures attendant upon the deprivation were not constitutionally sufficient. Kentucky Dep't. of Corrs. v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 459-60 (1989); McQuillion v. Duncan, 306 F.3d 895, 900 (9th Cir. 2002). A protected liberty interest may arise from either the Due Process Clause itself or from state laws. Board of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369, 373 (1987). In the context of parole, the United States Constitution does not, in and of itself, create a protected liberty interest in the receipt of a parole date, even one that has been set. Jago v. Van Curen, 454 U.S. 14, 17-21 (1981). However, when a state's statutory parole scheme uses mandatory language, it "'creates a presumption that parole release will be granted' when or unless certain designated findings are made, thereby giving rise to a constitutional liberty interest." McQuillion, 306 F.3d at 901 (quoting Greenholtz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal, 442 U.S. 1, 12 (1979)).

Under California law, prisoners serving indeterminate prison sentences "may serve up to life in prison, but they become eligible for parole consideration after serving minimum terms of confinement." In re Dannenberg, 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1078, 23 Cal.Rptr.3d 417 (2005). Generally, one year prior to an inmate's minimum eligible parole release date, the Board will set a parole release date "in a manner that will provide uniform terms for offenses of similar gravity and magnitude in respect to their threat to the public." In re Lawrence, 44 Cal.4th 1181, 1202, 82 Cal.Rptr.3d 169 (citing Cal.Penal Code § 3041(a)). A release date will not be set, however, if the Board determines "that the gravity of the current convicted offense or offenses, or the timing and gravity of current or past convicted offense or offenses, is such that consideration of the public safety requires a more lengthy period of incarceration...." Cal.Penal Code § 3041(b).

California state prisoners who have been sentenced to prison with the possibility of parole have a clearly established, constitutionally protected liberty interest in receipt of a parole release date. Allen, 482 U.S. at 377-78 (quoting Greenholtz, 442 U.S. at 12); Irons v. Carey, 505 F.3d 846, 850-51 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Sass v. Cal. Bd. of Prison Terms, 461 F.3d 1123, 1128 (9th Cir. 2006)); Biggs v. Terhune, 334 F.3d 910, 914 (9th Cir. 2003); McQuillion, 306 F.3d at 903.

In the context of parole proceedings, it is well established that inmates are not guaranteed the "full panoply of rights" afforded to criminal defendants under the Due Process Clause. See Pedro v. Or. Parole Bd., 825 F.2d 1396, 1398-99 (9th Cir. 1987). Nonetheless, inmates are afforded limited procedural protections. The Supreme Court has held that a parole board's procedures are constitutionally adequate so long as the inmate is given an opportunity to be heard and a decision informing him of the reasons he did not qualify for parole. Hayward v. Marshall, 603 F.3d 546, 560 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Greenholtz, 442 U.S. at 16). As a matter of state constitutional law, denial of parole to California inmates must be supported by "some evidence" demonstrating future dangerousness. Hayward, 603 F.3d at 562 (citing In re Rosencrantz, 29 Cal.4th 616, 128, 128 Cal.Rptr.2d 104 (2002)); see also In re Lawrence, 44 Cal.4th 1181, 1191, 82 Cal.Rptr.3d 169 (2008) (recognizing the denial of parole must be supported by "some evidence" that an inmate "poses a current risk to public safety"); In re Shaputis, 44 Cal.4th 1241, 1254, 82 Cal.Rptr.3d 213 (2008) (same). "California's 'some evidence' requirement is a component of the liberty interest created by the parole system of [the] state," Cooke v. Solis, 606 F.3d 1206, 1213 (9th Cir. 2010), and compliance with this evidentiary standard is, therefore, mandated by the federal Due Process Clause. Pearson v. Muntz, 606 F.3d 606, 611 (9th Cir. 2010). Thus, a federal court undertaking review of a "California judicial decision approving the... decision rejecting parole" must determine whether the state court's decision "was an 'unreasonable application' of the California 'some evidence' requirement, or was 'based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence.'" Hayward, 603 F.3d at 562-63 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2)).

When assessing whether a state parole board's suitability decision was supported by "some evidence," the analysis "is framed by the statutes and regulations governing parole suitability determinations in the relevant state." Irons, 505 F.3d at 851. The court must look to California law to determine what findings are necessary to deem a petitioner unsuitable for parole, and then must review the record to determine whether the state court decision holding that these findings were supported by "some evidence" or whether it constituted an unreasonable application of the "some evidence" principle. Id.

Title 15, Section 2402 of the California Code of Regulations sets forth various factors to be considered by the Board in its parole suitability findings for murderers. The regulation is designed to guide the Board's assessment regarding whether the inmate poses an "unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison," and thus whether he or she is suitable for parole. In re Lawrence, 44 Cal.4th at 1202, 82 Cal.Rptr.3d 169. The Board is directed to consider all relevant, reliable information available, including the circumstances of the prisoner's: social history; past and present mental state; past criminal history, including involvement in other criminal misconduct which is reliably documented; the base and other commitment offenses, including behavior before, during and after the crime; any conditions of treatment or control, including the use of special conditions under which the prisoner may safely be released to the community; and any other information which bears on the prisoner's suitability for release. 15 Cal.Code Regs. § 2402(b).

The regulation also lists several specific circumstances which tend to show suitability or unsuitability for parole. 15 Cal.Code Regs. § 2402(c)-(d). Factors tending to show unsuitability include,

(1) The Commitment Offense. The prisoner committed the offense in an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner. The factors to be considered include:

(A) Multiple victims were attacked, injured or killed in the same or separate incidents.

(B) The offense was carried out in a dispassionate and calculated manner, such as an execution-style murder.

(C) The victim was abused, defiled, or mutilated during or after the offense.

(D) The offense was carried out in a manner which demonstrates an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering.

(E) The motive for the crime is inexplicable or very trivial in relation to the offense.

(2) Previous Record of Violence. The prisoner on previous occasions inflicted or attempted to inflict serious injury on a victim, particularly if the prisoner demonstrated serious assaultive behavior at an early age.

(3) Unstable Social History. The prisoner has a history of unstable or tumultuous relationships with others.

(4) Sadistic Sexual Offenses. The prisoner has previously sexually assaulted another in a manner calculated to inflict unusual pain or fear upon the victim.

(5) Psychological Factors. The prisoner has a lengthy history of severe mental problems related to the offense.

(6) Institutional Behavior. The prisoner has engaged in serious misconduct in prison or jail.

(15 Cal. Code Regs. § 2402(c).)

Factors tending to show suitability include,

(1) No Juvenile Record. The prisoner does not have a record of assaulting others as a juvenile or committing crimes with a potential of personal harm to victims.

(2) Stable Social History. The prisoner has experienced reasonably stable relationships with others.

(3) Signs of Remorse. The prisoner performed acts which tend to indicate the presence of remorse such as attempting to repair the damage, seeking help for or relieving suffering of the victim, or indicating that he understands the nature and magnitude of the offense.

(4) Motivation for Crime. The prisoner committed his crime as the result of significant stress in his life, especially if the stress has guilt of a long period of time.

(5) Battered Woman Syndrome. At the time of the commission of the crime, the prisoner suffered from Battered Woman Syndrome, as defined in section 2000(b), and it appears the criminal behavior was the result of that victimization.

(6) Lack of Criminal History. The prisoner lacks any significant history of violent crime.

(7) Age. The prisoner's present age reduces the probability of recidivism.

(8) Understanding and Plans for Future. The prisoner has made realistic plans for release or has developed marketable skills that can be put to use upon release.

(9) Institutional Behavior. Institutional activities indicate an enhanced ability to function ...


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