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Sifuentes v. Brazelton, No. 13-17603 [February 18, 2016]

Sifuentes v. Brazelton

The Ninth Circuit reversed the granting of a habeas petition based on a claim of Batson error where the prosecutor excused nine black prospective jurors in Sifuentes’s trial for first-degree murder of a police officer. The panel applied the “doubly deferential standard” for reviewing a Batson error and found that Sifuentes failed to carry his burden of showing the prosecutor acted in a purposefully discriminatory way and the California court of appeal decision was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. “The double deferential standard means that ‘unless the state appellate court was objectively unreasonable in concluding that a trial court’s credibility determination was supported by substantial evidence, we must uphold it.’” Applying this standard requires two steps: 1) the court must review the relevant portions of the record and use ordinary analytic tools to evaluate the prosecutor’s race-neutral explanations; 2) after reviewing the prosecutor’s explanations in light of the evidence in the record, we turn to the state appellate court’s decision and ask whether the state appellate court was objectively unreasonable in upholding the trial court’s determination. Using this standard, the court analyzed each of the stricken jurors and concluded that the finding was not unreasonable. The court further denied Sifuentes’s argument that the trial court erred in precluding him from rebutting the prosecutor’s explanations for four of his strikes of prospective jurors, and this error was not harmless under Brecht. The California court of appeal concluded that this was error but was harmless. Finding that no clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, establishes a constitutional right “when the trial court declines to allow the defendant to participate in the trial court’s Batson colloquy with the prosecutor,” the court as the Supreme Court did in Ayala assumed for the sake of argument that it was federal constitutional error. The court then turned to the issue of prejudice. “In sum, a petitioner ‘necessarily cannot satisfy’ the Brecht requirement of showing that he was ‘actually prejudiced’ by the state court’s error in receiving the prosecution’s explanation for a challenged strike without the defense present ‘if a fairminded jurist could agree with the [state appellate court] that this procedure met the Chapman standard of harmlessness. By the same token, if a petitioner does satisfy the Brecht requirement of showing that an error resulted in ‘actual prejudice,’ then the petitioner necessarily must have shown that the state court’s determination that the error was harmless was objectively unreasonable.” Citations omitted. Here, they found that a reasonable jurist could conclude that the California Court of Appeal’s application of Chapman was not objectively unreasonable.

UPDATE: On June 9, 2016, the court issued an order and amended the petition and denying a petition for rehearing en banc. The amendment did not change the substance of the opinion.

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