FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATIONS
Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges the decision of the California Board of Parole Hearings (hereinafter "Board") to deny him parole for three years at his fourth parole consideration hearing held on April 11, 2007. Upon careful consideration of the record and the applicable law, the undersigned will recommend that petitioner's application for habeas corpus relief be denied.
Petitioner is confined pursuant to a judgment of conviction entered in the Los Angeles County Superior Court on October 9, 1987, following his conviction on charges of second degree murder with the use of a weapon. (Pet. at l.)*fn1 Pursuant to that conviction petitioner was sentenced to seventeen years to life in state prison. (Id.)
Petitioner's fourth parole consideration hearing, which is placed at issue by the instant petition, was held on April 11, 2007. (Id. at 65.) At the time of the hearing, petitioner had served nineteen years in prison. (Id. at 67.) Petitioner's minimum eligible parole date was March 5, 1999. (Id.) At his 2007 hearing the Board panel found petitioner not suitable for parole and denied parole for three years. (Id. at 162.)
On November 30, 2007, petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging that the Board's 2007 decision finding him unsuitable for parole violated his right to due process because it was not supported by sufficient evidence. (Answer, Ex. 2.) That court denied the petition in a reasoned decision on the merits. (Answer, Ex. 3.)
Petitioner subsequently challenged the Board's 2007 decision in petitions for a writ of habeas corpus filed in the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. (Answer, Exs. 4, 6.) Those petitions were summarily denied. (Answer, Exs. 5, 7.)
The Board described the facts of petitioner's commitment offense at the April 11, 2007 parole suitability hearing as follows:
On November 14th, 1986, at approximately 2:30 p.m., the victim was shot to death by Lewis with a 45 automatic. Prior to the shooting, a fistfight occurred between Lewis' gang and the victim's gang.
Lewis' involvement in the fight is unclear. However, it is documented that he approached the victim and shot him in the chest. No weapons were observed except Lewis' 45 automatic, in which eight casings were recovered.
Lewis was later arrested in Louisiana and admitted to the murder. I would note that Mr. Lewis was 20 at the time, and the victim was 15 years old. (Pet. at 73-74.) At the 2007 parole suitability hearing, petitioner explained his involvement as follows. While he was waiting for a bus he was approached and questioned by four or five rival gang members. (Id. at 76-77.) He left, got a weapon, and returned to the bus stop. (Id. at 77-78.) Several fights broke out among rival gang members. (Id. at 79.) After "shots rang out," petitioner fired several shots at four or five people running towards him, killing the victim. (Id. at 74, 79, 82-83.) Petitioner said he fired the gun in order to scare off the rival gang members and to defend himself and did not direct his shots toward any particular individual. (Id. at 83-84.)
I. Standards of Review Applicable to Habeas Corpus Claims A writ of habeas corpus is available under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 only on the basis of some transgression of federal law binding on the state courts. See Peltier v. Wright, 15 F.3d 860, 861 (9th Cir. 1993); Middleton v. Cupp, 768 F.2d 1083, 1085 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 119 (1982)). A federal writ is not available for alleged error in the interpretation or application of state law. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); Park v. California, 202 F.3d 1146, 1149 (9th Cir. 2000); Middleton, 768 F.2d at 1085. Habeas corpus cannot be utilized to try state issues de novo. Milton v. Wainwright, 407 U.S. 371, 377 (1972).
This action is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"). See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 336 (1997); Clark v. Murphy, 331 F.3d 1062, 1067 (9th Cir. 2003). Section 2254(d) sets forth the following standards for granting habeas corpus relief:
An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the 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.
See also Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 792-93 (2001); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000); Lockhart v. Terhune, 250 F.3d 1223, 1229 (9th Cir. 2001). If the state court's decision does not meet the criteria set forth in § 2254(d), a reviewing court must conduct a de novo review of a habeas petitioner's claims. Delgadillo v. Woodford, 527 F.3d 919, 925 (9th Cir. 2008). See also Frantz v. Hazey, 513 F.3d 1002, 1013 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc) ("[I]t is now clear both that we may not grant habeas relief simply because of § 2254(d)(1) error and that, if there is such error, we must decide the habeas petition by considering de novo the constitutional issues raised.").
The court looks to the last reasoned state court decision as the basis for the state court judgment. Robinson v. Ignacio, 360 F.3d 1044, 1055 (9th Cir. 2004). See also Barker v. Fleming, 423 F.3d 1085, 1091 (9th Cir. 2005) ("When more than one state court has adjudicated a claim, we analyze the last reasoned decision"). If the last reasoned state court decision adopts or substantially incorporates the reasoning from a previous state court decision, this court may consider both decisions to ascertain the reasoning of the last decision. Edwards v. Lamarque, 475 F.3d 1121, 1126 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc). Where the state court reaches a decision on the merits but provides no reasoning to support its conclusion, a federal habeas court independently reviews the record to determine whether habeas corpus relief is available under § 2254(d). Himes v. Thompson, 336 F.3d 848, 853 (9th Cir. 2003); Pirtle v. Morgan, 313 F.3d 1160, 1167 (9th Cir. 2002). 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, the AEDPA's deferential standard does not apply and a federal habeas court must review the claim de novo. Nulph v. Cook, 333 F.3d 1052, 1056 (9th Cir. 2003).
Petitioner claims that the 2007 Board decision violated his right to due process because the reasons cited by the Board in finding him unsuitable for release on parole "were not supported by any evidence in the record." (Pet. at 14, 19, 24.) He also argues that there was no "rational link or nexus" between the Board's decision that he then posed a current danger to society if released and the evidence relied on by the Board to find him unsuitable for parole. (Id.)
B. Applicable Legal Standards
1. Due Process in the California Parole Context The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits state action that deprives a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. A litigant alleging a due process violation must first demonstrate that he was deprived of a liberty or property interest protected by the Due Process Clause and then show that the procedures attendant upon the deprivation were not constitutionally sufficient. Kentucky Dep't of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 459-60 (1989); McQuillion v. Duncan, 306 F.3d 895, 900 (9th Cir. 2002).*fn2
A protected liberty interest may arise from either the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution "by reason of guarantees implicit in the word 'liberty,'" or from "an expectation or interest created by state laws or policies." Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209, 221 (2005) (citations omitted). See also Board of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369, 373 (1987). The United States Constitution does not, of its own force, create a protected liberty interest in a parole date, even one that has been set. Jago v. Van Curen, 454 U.S. 14, 17-21 (1981); Greenholtz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal, 442 U.S. 1, 7 (1979) (There is "no constitutional or inherent right of a convicted person to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence."); see also Hayward v. Marshall, 603 F.3d 546, 561 (9th Cir. 2010) ("[I]n the absence of state law establishing otherwise, there is no federal constitutional requirement that parole be granted in the absence of 'some evidence' of future dangerousness or anything else.") (en banc). However, "a state's statutory scheme, if it uses mandatory language, 'creates a presumption that parole release will be granted' when or unless certain designated findings are made, and thereby gives rise to a constitutional liberty interest." McQuillion, 306 F.3d at 901 (quoting Greenholtz, 442 U.S. at 12). See also Allen, 482 U.S. at 376-78; Pearson v. Muntz, 606 F.3d 606, 609 (9th Cir. 2010) ("The principle that state law gives rise to liberty interests that may be enforced as a matter of federal law is long established."); Hayward, 603 F.3d 562-63 ("Although the Due Process Clause does not, by itself, entitle a prisoner to parole in the absence of some evidence of future dangerousness, state law may supply a predicate for that conclusion.")
In California, a prisoner is entitled to release on parole unless there is "some evidence" of his or her current dangerousness. Hayward, 603 F.3d at 562 (citing In re Lawrence, 44 Cal.4th 1181, 1205-06, 1210 (2008) and In re Shaputis, 44 Cal. 4th 1241 (2008)); Cooke v. Solis, 606 F.3d 1206, 1213 (9th Cir. 2010), pet. for cert. filed (Sept. 2, 2010) (No. 10-333); Pirtle v. California Bd. of Prison Terms, 611 F.3d 1015, 1020 (9th Cir. 2010) ; In re Rosenkrantz, 29 Cal.4th 616, 651-53 (2002). Therefore, "California's parole scheme gives rise to a cognizable liberty interest in release on parole." Pirtle, 611 F.3d at 1020 (quoting McQuillion, 306 F.3d at 902). This liberty interest is enforceable under the federal Due Process Clause pursuant to clearly established federal law. Haggard v. Curry, 623 F.3d 1035, 1040-41 (9th Cir. 2010); Cooke, 606 F.3d at 1213 (denial of parole to a California prisoner "in the absence of 'some evidence' of current dangerousness . . . violat[es] . . . his federal right to due process."); Pearson, 606 F.3d at 609 (a state parole system that gives rise to a liberty interest in parole release is enforceable under the federal Due Process Clause); Hayward, 603 F.3d at 563; see also Castelan v. Campbell, No. 2:06-cv-01906-MMM, 2010 WL 3834838, at * 2 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 30, 2010) (McKeown, J.) ("In other words, in requiring [federal] habeas courts to review parole denials for compliance with California's 'some evidence' rule, Hayward holds that California state constitutional law creates a cognizable interest in parole absent 'some evidence' of dangerousness, and that the federal Due Process Clause in turn incorporates that right as a matter of clearly established federal law.")
2. California's Statutes and Regulations on Parole When a federal court assesses whether a state parole board's suitability determination was supported by "some evidence" in a habeas case, that analysis "is shaped by the state regulatory, statutory, and constitutional law that governs parole suitability determinations in California." Pirtle, 611 F.3d at 1020 (citing Hayward, 603 F.3d at 561-62). The setting of a parole date for a California state prisoner is conditioned on a finding of suitability. Cal. Penal Code § 3041; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, §§ 2401 & 2402. The state regulation that governs parole suitability findings for life prisoners states as follows with regard to the statutory requirement of California Penal Code § 3041(b): "Regardless of the length of time served, a life prisoner shall be found unsuitable for and denied parole if in the judgment of the panel the prisoner will pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison." Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2281(a). In California, the overriding concern in determining parole suitability is public safety. In re Dannenberg, 34 Cal. 4th 1061, 1086 (2005). This "core determination of 'public safety' . . . involves an assessment of an inmates current dangerousness." In re Lawrence, 44 Cal. 4th at 1205 (emphasis in original). Accordingly, when a court reviews a decision of the Board or the Governor, the relevant inquiry is whether some evidence supports the decision of the Board or the Governor that the inmate constitutes a current threat to public safety, and not merely whether some evidence confirms the existence of certain factual findings.
Id. at 1212 (citing In re Rosenkrantz, 29 Cal. 4th at 658; In re Dannenberg, 34 Cal. 4th at 1071; and In re Lee, 143 Cal. App.4th 1400, 1408 (2006)). "In short, 'some evidence' of future dangerousness is indeed a state sine qua non for denial of parole in California." Pirtle, 611 F.3d at 1021 (quoting Hayward, 603 F.3d at 562). See also Cooke, 606 F.3d at 1214.*fn3
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 at 1078. The Board normally sets a parole release date one year prior to the inmate's minimum eligible parole release date, and does so "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 at 1202 (citing Cal. Penal Code § 3041(a)). A release date must be set "unless [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 . . . and that a parole date, therefore, cannot be fixed . . . ." Cal. Penal Code § 3041(b). In determining whether an inmate is suitable for parole, the Board must consider all relevant, reliable information available regarding 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; past and present attitude toward 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.
Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 2281(b). However, "there must be more than the crime or its circumstances alone to justify the Board's or the Governor's finding of current dangerousness." Cooke, 606 F.3d at 1214. See also Lawrence, 44 Cal. 4th at 1211 ("But the statutory and regulatory mandate to normally grant parole to life prisoners who have committed murder means that, particularly after these prisoners have served their suggested base terms, the underlying circumstances of the commitment offense alone rarely will provide a valid basis for denying parole when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation and no other evidence of current dangerousness.")
The regulation identifies circumstances that tend to show suitability or unsuitability for release. Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 2281(c) & (d). The following circumstances are identified as tending to show that a prisoner is suitable for release: the prisoner has no juvenile record of assaulting others or committing crimes with a potential of personal harm to victims; the prisoner has experienced reasonably stable relationships with others; the prisoner has performed acts that tend to indicate the presence of remorse or has given indications that he understands the nature and magnitude of his offense; the prisoner committed his crime as the result of significant stress in his life; the prisoner's criminal behavior resulted from having been victimized by battered women syndrome; the prisoner lacks a significant history of violent crime; the prisoner's present age reduces the probability of recidivism; the prisoner has made realistic plans for release or has developed marketable skills that can be put to use upon release; institutional activities indicate an enhanced ability to function within the law upon release. Id., § 2281(d).
The following circumstances are identified as tending to indicate unsuitability for release: the prisoner committed the offense in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner; the prisoner had a previous record of violence; the prisoner has an unstable social history; the prisoner's crime was a sadistic sexual offense; the prisoner had a lengthy history of severe mental problems related to the offense; the prisoner has engaged in serious misconduct in prison. Id., § 2281(c). Factors to consider in deciding whether the prisoner's offense was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner include: multiple victims were attacked, injured, or killed in the same or separate incidents; the offense was carried out in a dispassionate and calculated manner, such as an execution-style murder; the victim was abused, defiled or mutilated during or after the offense; the offense was carried out in a manner that demonstrated an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering; the motive for the crime is inexplicable or very trivial in relation to the offense. Id., § 2281(c)(1)(A) - (E).
In the end, under state law as clarified by the California Supreme Court, the determination whether an inmate poses a current danger is not dependent upon whether his or her commitment offense is more or less egregious than other, similar crimes. (Dannenberg, supra, 34 Cal. 4th at pp 1083-84 [parallel citations omitted].) Nor is it dependent solely upon whether the circumstances of the offense exhibit viciousness above the minimum elements required for conviction of that offense. Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether the circumstances of the commitment offense, when considered in light of other facts in the record, are such that they continue to be predictive of current dangerousness many years after commission of the offense. This inquiry is, by necessity and by statutory mandate, an individualized one, and cannot be ...