- Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
- Area(s) of Law: Post-Conviction Relief
- Date Filed: 10-05-2022
- Case #: No. 18-99007
- Judge(s)/Court Below: VanDyke, Circuit Judge, for the Court; Rawlinson and Lee, Circuit Judges.
- Full Text Opinion
Ochoa was convicted of multiple crimes and received a death penalty. His habeas corpus petition challenging the verdict was denied. He appealed, claiming (1) his constitutional rights were violated after prospective jurors were removed based on oppositions to the death penalty; (2) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance during jury selection and the penalty phase of his trial; and (3) his death sentence was a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
(1) Ochoa argued that the prospective jurors were improperly dismissed based on their responses to the prosecutor's “misleading” hypotheticals. A juror in a capital case is properly excluded for cause where the juror’s views on capital punishment would “prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.” Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424 (1985) (cleaned up). The prospective jurors’ inability to impose a death sentence was apparent from their responses to the prosecutor’s legally correct hypotheticals. Because these jurors were properly dismissed, the Court affirmed.
(2) Ochoa contended that his counsel’s performance was deficient because they did not object to the prosecutor’s hypotheticals, attempt to rehabilitate challenged jurors, and did not present “red flags” as mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of his trial. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims require that “counsel’s performance was deficient,” and that the “deficient performance prejudiced [defendant’s] defense.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). In the penalty phase of a capital case, a defendant must show “a reasonable probability that at least one juror” would have voted for a life sentence. Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 537 (2003). Ochoa failed to overcome the presumption that his counsel’s conduct was within the range of reasonable professional assistance because the prosecutor’s hypotheticals were not objectionable and there was evidence that each of the challenged jurors were substantially impaired in their ability to impose the death penalty. Additionally, his counsel’s decision to omit “red flag” evidence to strategically present a “family sympathy” defense was a reasonable decision. The Court affirmed the denial of Ochoa’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims.
(3) Ochoa asserted that because he “suffered mental impairments that are as severe as mental retardation from the date of his arrest to the present,” he was ineligible for execution under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. Intellectual disability is defined according to three factors: “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning”; “deficits in adaptive functioning”; and “onset of these deficits during the developmental period.” Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. 701, 710 (2014). None of Ochoa’s experts diagnosed him with an intellectual disability, and he failed to prove an intellectual disability under any of the three factors. The Court affirmed the finding that Ochoa failed to demonstrate an intellectual disability.