United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER TO SHOW CAUSE RE: DKT. NO. 11
ILLSTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
J. Capanis filed this pro se action for a writ of
habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 to challenge
a 2017 conviction. The court dismissed the original petition
with leave to amend to cure several pleading deficiencies.
Capanis' amended petition is now before the court for
review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2243 and Rule 4 of the
Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States
amended petition provides the following information:
Following a jury trial in 2017 in Contra Costa County
Superior Court, Capanis was convicted of first degree murder
with a special circumstance and possession of a firearm by a
felon. Sentence enhancement allegations for two prior prison
terms were found true. On May 26, 2017, he was sentenced to
life in prison without the possibility of parole.
appealed. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the
judgment of conviction in 2018, and the California Supreme
Court denied the petition for review in 2019.
filed this action.
court may entertain a petition for writ of habeas corpus
“in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the
judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in
custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties
of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). A
district court considering an application for a writ of
habeas corpus shall “award the writ or issue an order
directing the respondent to show cause why the writ should
not be granted, unless it appears from the application that
the applicant or person detained is not entitled
thereto.” 28 U.S.C. § 2243. Summary dismissal is
appropriate only where the allegations in the petition are
vague or conclusory, palpably incredible, or patently
frivolous or false. See Hendricks v. Vasquez, 908
F.2d 490, 491 (9th Cir. 1990).
amended petition for writ of habeas corpus presents the
following claims: First, Capanis contends that the
life-without-parole sentence for a first-degree murder with a
special circumstance (a) violated his right to due process
because there was insufficient evidence of active
participation in a criminal street gang to support the
special circumstance sentence under California Penal Code
§ 190.2(A)(22) and (b) violated his Eighth Amendment
right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. Second,
Capanis alleges that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right
to present a defense when the trial court excluded certain
helpful evidence, rejected jury instructions on self-defense,
and interrupted defense counsel's closing argument to
tell the jury that there was no self-defense in the case.
Third, Capanis contends that the admission of evidence of his
prior criminal conduct violated his right to due process.
Fourth, Capanis contends that the denial of his request for a
jury instruction that the jury could consider evidence of his
good character violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment
rights to present a defense and to due process. See
Docket No. 11-1 at 38-41. Fifth, he contends that the
admission of witness Navarro's testimony about a rumor
Navarro heard violated Capanis' right to due process.
Liberally construed, these claims are cognizable in a habeas
action, except for the Eighth Amendment claim.
imposition of a life-without-parole sentence did not violate
Capanis' Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and
unusual punishment. Capanis received his life-without-parole
sentence for a crime in which he and another adult shot at
and killed the victim. People v. Capanis, 2019 WL
1397341 (Cal.Ct.App. opinion filed March 28,
2019). The Eighth Amendment's “Cruel
and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits the imposition of
inherently barbaric punishments under all
circumstances.” Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S.
48, 59 (2010). “For the most part, however, the
[Supreme] Court's precedents consider punishments
challenged not as inherently barbaric but as disproportionate
to the crime.” Id. The Eighth Amendment
contains a “narrow” proportionality principle -
one that “does not require strict proportionality
between crime and sentence, ” and forbids only
“extreme sentences that are ‘grossly
disproportionate' to the crime.” Id. at
59-60. Only in that rare case where a comparison of the
gravity of the offense and the severity of the sentence leads
to an inference of gross disproportionality does the court
compare a petitioner's sentence with sentences for other
offenders in the jurisdiction, and for the same crime in
other jurisdictions, to determine whether it is cruel and
unusual punishment. Id. at 60.
sentence of life in prison, with or without the possibility
of parole, for a murder does not lead to an inference of
gross disproportionality and therefore does not amount to
cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth
Amendment. See United States v. LaFleur, 971 F.2d
200, 211 (9th Cir. 1991) (“Under Harmelin [v.
Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)], it is clear that a
mandatory life sentence for murder does not constitute cruel
and unusual punishment”); cf. Solem v. Helm,
463 U.S. 277, 290 n.15 (1983) (discussing earlier case in
which it had found the death penalty to be excessive for
felony murder in the circumstances of a particular case;
“clearly no sentence of imprisonment would be
disproportionate” for the felony murder of an elderly
couple). Lengthy sentences for crimes less serious than
murder also have been upheld by the Supreme Court and Ninth
Circuit. See e.g., Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11,
29-31 (2003) (upholding sentence of 25-years-to-life for
recidivist convicted most recently of grand theft);
Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 76 (2003)
(upholding sentence of two consecutive terms of
25-years-to-life for recidivist convicted most recently of
two counts of petty theft with a prior conviction);
Harmelin, 501 U.S. at 996 (upholding sentence of
life without possibility of parole for first offense of
possession of 672 grams of cocaine); Norris v.
Morgan, 622 F.3d 1276, 1292-96 (9th Cir. 2010)
(concluding that sentence of life without possibility of
parole for conviction of first degree child molestation of
5-year-old girl, where touching was brief and over clothing,
was not grossly disproportionate). Here, even if Capanis must
spend the rest of his life in prison as a result of his
conviction, his continued imprisonment would not run afoul of
the Eighth Amendment. Life imprisonment for first degree
murder committed by an adult is not so disproportionate to
the crime that it could be said to amount to cruel and
unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. The Eighth Amendment claim is dismissed.
foregoing reasons, 1. The amended petition states cognizable
claims for habeas relief and warrants a response. The Eighth
Amendment claim is dismissed.
clerk shall serve a copy of this order, the amended petition
and all attachments thereto upon respondent and
respondent's attorney, the Attorney General of the State
of California. The ...