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Gates v. Davis

United States District Court, N.D. California

March 27, 2017

OSCAR GATES, Petitioner,
RON DAVIS, Warden, San Quentin State Prison Respondent.



          WILLIAM ALSUP United States District Judge.


         A jury convicted petitioner, Oscar Gates, in 1981 of, inter alia, murder (Cal. Penal Code 187(a)), accompanied by the robbery-murder special circumstance (Section 190.2 (a)(17)(A)), two counts of robbery (Section 211), assault with a deadly weapon (Section 245(a)), possession of a firearm by an ex-felon (Section 12021), and escape (Section 4532(b)). He seeks a writ of habeas corpus under Section 2254, and the parties have now briefed three of the many claims in the petition. Petitioner requests that if relief is not granted, a ruling on the claims be deferred until he can file his motion for evidentiary hearing, which would include a request for hearing on these claims. He also argues that these claims are inextricably interwoven with Claims 8D, 12, and 13, which either have not been briefed or have been deferred pending submission of a motion for evidentiary hearing, and that such interconnection warrants a delayed ruling. Because these claims can be decided on the record before the state court, Claims 6A, 6B and 7 are Denied for the following reasons.


         On December 10, 1979, Maurice Stevenson and his uncle, Lonnie Stevenson, waxed his car in front of Maurice's grandfather's house in Oakland at about 3:30 p.m. Petitioner appeared, holding a gun with the hammer cocked. Petitioner herded Maurice and Lonnie to the side of the house and ordered them to put their hands on the wall, empty their pockets, and remove their jewelry. After Maurice and Lonnie complied, petitioner frisked them, then asked Maurice as to the whereabouts of Maurice's father, James Stevenson. Maurice replied that he did not know. Petitioner replied that he planned to kill them. Petitioner first shot Lonnie, who yelled for his father and started running toward the back of the house, then shot Maurice, picked up the money with some of the jewelry, and fled. Lonnie died but Maurice survived. Some time after the shooting, petitioner called Jimmy Stevenson, Maurice's grandfather, to say that he had killed Lonnie and shot Maurice, that he intended to go to Los Angeles to kill members of another family, and that when he returned he would finish killing off the Stevenson family. On December 29, 1979, police arrested petitioner in Vallejo with the gun used to kill Lonnie. See People v. Gates, 43 Cal.3d 1168, 1176-78 (1987).

         On January 4, 1980, a grand jury indicted petitioner in Alameda County. The indictment charged petitioner with murder (Cal. Penal Code § 187(a)), accompanied by the robbery-murder special circumstance (§ 190.2 (a)(17)(A)), two counts of robbery (§ 211), assault with a deadly weapon (§ 245(a)), possession of a firearm by an ex-felon (§ 12021), and escape (§ 4532(b)), among other things. Petitioner pled not guilty. The trial began on March 16, 1981. At trial, petitioner asserted a claim-of-right defense. He testified about a so-called “Stevenson family forgery ring, ” purportedly headed by James Stevenson and Donald “Duck” Taylor, and of which, Lonnie and Maurice Stevenson, Melvin Hines and petitioner were all members. A dispute arose when petitioner did not receive his “big cut” of $25, 000 allegedly promised to him.

         Trial testimony also revealed that, in September 1979, a heated argument between petitioner and other members of the forgery ring led to Maurice and James Stevenson shooting petitioner, resulting in a gunshot wound to petitioner's leg. Thereafter, petitioner learned through intermediaries that he would have to give up his claim to the money or he would be shot again.

         Petitioner told a different story to the jury.

         Petitioner testified that he made arrangements by phone with Lonnie to pick up the money owed to him at Jimmy's house on December 10, 1979, at about 3:00 p.m. According to petitioner, he arrived at Jimmy's house, where he saw Maurice and Lonnie outside waxing a car. Petitioner testified that he told Maurice and Lonnie that he wanted his money, that he didn't want any trouble, and that he had a gun and could take care of himself. As the three men made their way around the side of the house, petitioner became suspicious by some of Maurice and Lonnie's actions, so he patted them down for weapons. After finding none, the three men continued toward the back of the house where petitioner saw Jimmy holding a gun. Gunfire erupted. Lonnie and Maurice were shot. Petitioner fled.

         On May 6, 1981, the jury convicted petitioner of all charges and found the special circumstance allegation to be true.

         At the penalty phase, the prosecution presented, as evidence in aggravation, evidence of petitioner's convictions for robbery and for two assaults in connection with a 1978 robbery of a McDonald's restaurant, a 1973 conviction for rape, and a 1973 conviction for kidnapping. The prosecution also presented evidence of petitioner's involvement in a 1978 assault and robbery of two women at a Los Angeles mortuary, which had resulted in the death of one of the women. A jury later convicted petitioner of the Los Angeles mortuary crimes in a separate trial.

         The case in mitigation consisted of testimony by several of petitioner's family members, several apartment neighbors, and a clinical psychologist. Petitioner's family members described the racially segregated environment in which petitioner grew up in Belzoni, Mississippi. They testified that petitioner never got into in any trouble until an incident at a Western Auto Store when he was approximately 14 to 16 years old; the incident, which apparently involved petitioner, an African-American, striking a white woman who had struck him first, resulted in petitioner spending six months in jail and becoming a target of police harassment and suspicion for any problem that arose thereafter. Petitioner's mother also testified that she visited petitioner in California in 1973 at a jail hospital after he had been beaten by the police. Petitioner's neighbors described petitioner as a friendly, sweet, considerate, good-hearted, good-natured person who never got angry and got along well with people. Dr. Paul Berg, a clinical psychologist, testified that petitioner was “an unusually well-adjusted prisoner” and most likely would not present a problem in prison. See Gates, 43 Cal.3d at 1193-97. On May 28, 1981, the jury returned with a verdict of death for petitioner.

         * * *

         The California Supreme Court affirmed petitioner's conviction and sentence on direct appeal on October 15, 1987. Gates, 43 Cal.3d at 1168. On May 23, 1988, the United States Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari. Gates v. California, 486 U.S. 1027 (1988).

         Subsequent state and federal habeas proceedings ensued, with a primary focus on, inter alia, petitioner's competency. This Court decided to move forward with the case despite Petitioner's mental problems, but the Court of Appeals directed the Court to stay the matter. A 2004 order, therefore, stayed this matter, as required by Rohan ex. rel. Gates v. Woodford (“Gates II”), 334 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 2003). At that time, all counsel agreed that petitioner was incompetent to assist counsel.

         Nine years passed.

         On January 8, 2013, the Supreme Court decided Ryan v. Gonzales, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 696, 706-709 (2013), abrogating Gates II and holding that an incompetent capital prisoner has no right to an indefinite stay of habeas proceedings. Ryan held that while the district court retains the discretion to grant a temporary stay, it should not enter an indefinite stay if the petitioner reasonably cannot be expected to regain competence in the foreseeable future. Ibid.

         Pursuant to Ryan, this Court lifted the stay. The parties engaged in settlement proceedings with Magistrate Judge Beeler without success. In addition, the Court ordered proceedings on the merits of petitioner's federal habeas proceedings to re-commence, and subsequently addressed numerous claims on the merits (Dkt. No. 715). Recognizing that petitioner's competency still presented an issue, the Court appointed independent expert Dr. Jessica Ferranti to examine petitioner (Dkt. No. 740). Dr. Ferranti concluded that, as the result of mental disorder, petitioner is incompetent, i.e., that he does not have the capacity to make rational choices with respect to his Court proceedings or to communicate rationally with his attorneys (Ferranti Report at 16-18). Both sides agreed that petitioner lacks competency to assist counsel. Under Ryan, however, incompetency no longer constitutes grounds to stay the matter indefinitely. Petitioner subsequently filed a motion to stay pending compulsory restoration proceedings; the Court denied petitioner's motion and ordered consideration of petitioner's claims on the merits to continue (Dkt. No. 775). Several claims have since been denied or deferred pending the filing of a motion for an evidentiary hearing (Dkt. Nos. 777, 794).


         Because petitioner filed his initial federal habeas petition before the effective date of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, pre-AEDPA standards apply to all of petitioner's claims, even those added by amendment after AEDPA's effective date. See Thomas v. Chappell, 678 F.3d 1086, 1100-01 (9th Cir. 2012). Under those standards, we must “presume that the state court's findings of historical fact are correct and defer to those findings in the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary or a demonstrated lack of fair support in the record.” Mayfield v. Woodford, 270 F.3d 915, 922 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing 28 U.S.C. 2254(d) (1994)). State court determinations with respect to mixed questions of law and fact are reviewed de novo. Ibid. Pure questions of law are reviewed de novo. Ibid. Ultimately, petitioner ...

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