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9th Circuit: District Court Improperly Deferred to Nevada Supreme Court in AEDPA Analysis

by David Reutter

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held a Nevada federal district court erred in its analysis under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) by deferring to a state court’s determination that a death-sentenced prisoner was not intellectually disabled. The Court further held the ruling in Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016) is not retroactive. (See December 2017 issue of CLN for discussion of Hurst.)

Before the Ninth Circuit was the appeal of Robert Ybarra, Jr., who was sentenced to death for the 1979 kidnapping, beating, and sexual assault of 16-year-old Nancy Griffith. Ybarra doused her in gasoline, set her on fire, and left her to a slow, agonizing death. The Court opined there was no question this is within the “narrow category of the most serious crimes” that qualify for the death penalty.

Ybarra’s previously sought habeas corpus reviews, claiming that intellectual disability disqualified him for the death penalty, were dismissed on “technical procedural reasons” for failing to fully exhaust remedies in state court. After his federal habeas petition was denied and affirmed in federal court, he reignited the intellectual disability claim in state court.

The state trial court held a hearing and denied relief. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed in a well-reasoned order.

On rehearing, Ybarra attached a report from Dr. Stephen Greenspan, the most cited authority in the 2002 and 2000 diagnostic manuals of the American Association on Intellectual Disabilities. The Nevada Supreme Court rejected Ybarra’s claim of intellectual disability on the merits.

To gain entry to federal court without filing a petition to file a second or successive habeas petition with the Ninth Circuit, Ybarra filed a motion to set aside its prior judgment in accordance with Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) where such a motion raises an entirely “new claim” or attacks “the federal court’s resolution of a claim on the merits,” it is actually disguised as a habeas petition. That was not present here. Instead, Ybarra sought to reopen an issue dismissed for technical procedural reasons. As such, the federal district court had jurisdiction.

The Ninth Circuit then found that “Ybarra plausibly argues that the Nevada Supreme Court made an unreasonable determination of fact under [28 U.S.C.] § 2254(d)(2).” Nev. Rev. Stat. § 174.098(7) sets forth a three-prong test for determining whether a person is intellectually disabled. The state district court essentially ignored the defense’s two expert witnesses who testified that Ybarra met all three prongs; instead, it credited the state’s single expert witness who disagreed. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed, adopting a similar analysis.

The federal district court concluded that the Nevada Supreme Court’s determination was entitled to AEDPA deference. AEDPA requires federal courts to defer to a state court’s adjudication of claim unless it “(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”

The Ninth Circuit noted that it may not second-guess the state court’s fact-finding unless it determines “that the state court was not merely wrong, but actually unreasonable.” It’s a difficult standard to satisfy, but Ybarra did so in this case. According to the Court, the Nevada Supreme Court made enough errors, such as ignoring evidence and making contradictory statements, that the federal district court erred by deferring to the state court’s adjudication for AEDPA purposes.

The Ninth Circuit made it clear that it renders no opinion on whether Ybarra is intellectually disabled or whether the Nevada Supreme Court made a reasonable or unreasonable determination of fact when it concluded he is not. Rather, “we decide only that the district court erred in its analysis under AEDPA.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated and remanded in accordance with its opinion. See: Ybarra v. Filson, 869 F.3d 1016 (9th Cir. 2017). 

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