Zapien v. Martel

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 11-09-2015
  • Case #: 09-99023
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Kozinski for the Court; Circuit Judges Rawlinson and Murguia
  • Full Text Opinion

A criminal conviction will not be overturned unless a state appellate court is objectively unreasonable in finding that a trial court's determination of trustworthiness was supported by the evidence and a defendant's Confrontation Rights are not violated when a trial court admits statements made by a witness at a preliminary hearing, who refuses to testify at trial, because preliminary hearing testimony is sufficiently reliable.

Conrad Zapien was convicted for the murder of Ruby Gonzales, the mistress of Zapien’s sister’s husband, and was sentenced to death. Zapien was a heroin addict and was desperate for money. The prosecution’s theory at trial was that Zapien attempted to rob Ruby upon hearing from his sister that Ruby had money and jewelry, killing her in the process. Zapien fled after the murder and was found a few months later in Arizona. Before the trial began the prosecutor and his investigator found a sealed envelope with the name of Zapien’s counsel on it. The envelope had an audio tape that set out the defense’s trial strengths and weaknesses. The investigator claimed he destroyed the tape and never listened to it. The district court denied Zapien’s habeas corpus petition. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit decided whether Zapien was denied due process when the investigator destroyed the audio tape and whether Zapien had ineffective counsel. Zapien argued that if the tape was not destroyed it could have been tested to show that it had been listened to. Zapien also argued that his counsel was ineffective at the trial and sentencing phase. The panel held that according to Briggs v. Grounds, “[U]nless the state appellate court was objectively unreasonable in concluding that a trial court’s credibility determination was supported by [the record], we must uphold it.” The panel also found unpersuasive Zapien’s argument that his right to Confrontation was violated by the admission of statements made by his sister at a preliminary hearing, when she refused to testify at trial. Preliminary hearing testimony constitutes statements that are deemed reliable, thus it was not a violation of his Confrontation Rights. The court also rejected various arguments set forth by Zapien that his counsel was ineffective at trial and the guilt phase. AFFIRMED.

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