Dickey v. Davis, in his capacity as Warden of San Quentin State Prison

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Procedure
  • Date Filed: 05-31-2023
  • Case #: 19-99009
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Mary H. Murguia, Chief Judge, and William A. Fletcher and Morgan Christen, Circuit Judges.
  • Full Text Opinion

Trial violations regarding witness testimony are material to a determination of a penalty phase verdict when the witness’s testimony could have made a difference to the jury’s imposition of the death penalty and, under the stricter Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) standard, where a verdict is already of questionable validity such that “additional evidence of relatively minor importance might be sufficient to create a reasonable doubt.” Under those high standards, a prosecutor violating Brady and Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264 (1959) through improper witness testimony, is material to penalty phase verdicts.

Defendant was sentenced to death after he was convicted of robbery, burglary, and felony murder. At trial, the state’s star witness, Buchanan, testified that he had not received favors from the state, and had only met with the prosecution “a couple of times” before trial. It is on those testimonial statements defendant appealed due to alleged error in both the guilt and penalty phase determinations. Defendant rested both allegations of error on the prosecutor’s alleged violations of both Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264 (1959), through knowing use of false and misleading testimony, and Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), through failure to disclose favorable material evidence, for admission of the above witness testimony. On direct appeal to the California Supreme Court, though acknowledging the prosecutor violated Napue and Brady, the court ultimately held defendant’s claims were immaterial to both the guilt and penalty phase verdicts. Defendant filed a habeas petition, for which relief on all claims were denied. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, and reversed and remanded, in part. The state’s theory of guilt was based on an allegation defendant aided and abetted murder, which required a finding of special circumstances that defendant “intended either to kill a human being or to aid another in the killing of a human being.” The Ninth Circuit determined the prosecution’s violations were material to the penalty phase verdict because Buchanan’s testimony was crucial to the special circumstances finding. A finding of immateriality would require finding the testimony could not have made a difference to imposition of the death penalty. Under the Brady standard, even relatively minor, additional evidence, may be sufficient for reasonable doubt. Altogether, the court held that the violations were material to the penalty phase verdict because of those high standards in combination with the importance of Buchanan’s testimony. The Ninth Circuit AFFIRMED the district court’s denial of relief for the guilt phase verdict, and REVERSED and REMANDED the court’s denial of relief for defendant’s penalty phase claims.

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