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Davis v. Ayala

Justia Summary

During jury selection in Ayala’s murder trial, Ayala, who is Hispanic, objected that seven of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges were impermissibly race-based under Batson v. Kentucky. The judge permitted the prosecution to disclose its reasons for the strikes outside the presence of the defense and concluded that there were valid, race-neutral reasons for the strikes. Ayala was convicted and sentenced to death. The California Supreme Court concluded that it was harmless error, under state law, to exclude Ayala from the hearings, and that, if a federal error occurred, it too was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. A divided Ninth Circuit panel granted Ayala habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254(d). The Supreme Court reversed. Any federal constitutional error that may have occurred by excluding Ayala’s attorney from part of the Batson hearing was harmless. The California Supreme Court’s decision was an “adjudication on the merits” of Ayala’s claim; a federal court cannot grant Ayala relief unless the state court’s rejection of his claim was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Any federal constitutional error was harmless with respect to all seven prospective jurors. Each of the reasons for using a challenge was amply supported by the record and there is no basis for finding that the absence of defense counsel affected the trial judge’s evaluation of the strikes. The trial judge heard counsel’s arguments and concluded that the record supplied a legitimate basis for the prosecution’s concern. That defense counsel did not have the opportunity to repeat that argument does not create grave doubt about whether the trial court would have decided the issue differently.

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