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Ninth Circuit Reiterates Presumption of Innocence Remains Until Conviction, Grants Habeas Relief

The case began in a California superior court in 2012, where Keith Ford stood trial for the 2010 shooting death of Ruben Martinez. During closing arguments, the prosecutor wrapped up his case by saying that Ford had a fair trial and that “this idea of this presumption of innocence is over.” The prosecutor told the jury, “this system is not perfect, but he had a fair opportunity and a fair trial. He’s not presumed innocent anymore.” This was before the jury was to go into deliberations, and these were the last words they heard.

Defense counsel objected on the basis that the prosecutor’s comments “misstates the law,” but the trial court overruled the objection and let the comments stands. The jury deliberated four days and came up “hopelessly deadlocked.” The court demanded they continue deliberating, and four days later, they convicted Ford of first-degree murder. Ford’s appeals were all denied as were his state petitions for postconviction relief.

In his federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Ford raised numerous claims, and all were denied. On appeal, however, one received attention: The same claim he raised in his state petition. The Ninth Circuit concluded that because the state court failed to address Ford’s claim, it could review his federal claim de novo and without any deference to the state court’s ruling, which is usually given deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”).

Under the AEDPA, a federal court cannot grant habeas corpus relief to a state prisoner, except in limited circumstances. One of those is when the state postconviction court’s decision “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.” § 2254(d).

In Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168 (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor’s statements violate due process if they infect a trial with unfairness and “make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.” There must be a “reasonable probability” that the comments “rendered the trial fundamentally unfair” in order to show a Darden error.

The Ninth Circuit reiterated that the presumption of innocence remains intact up until the point of conviction, citing several Supreme Court cases. Under Darden, the Court noted a least six factors a court considers in determining whether a prosecutor’s comments violate due process. These include the weight of the evidence, the weight of the comment in context of the whole trial, whether the prosecutor misstated the evidence, whether the judge cured the error by instructing the jury, whether the defense invited the error, and whether defense counsel had a chance to rebut the comment.

Nearly all of the factors leaned in favor of Ford, the Court found. The weight of the evidence was weak, the prosecutor’s comments were “prominent,” and the state court failed to instruct the jury. Actually, the trial judge did “quite the opposite,” the Court said.

The state postconviction court ignored Darden completely and instead ruled that the prosecutor’s comments were “harmless.” Because the state court applied the wrong standard and the wrong Supreme Court case, the Ninth Circuit concluded the denial of Ford’s state habeas petition was “unreasonable,” allowing the federal court to grant relief.

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Related legal case

Ford v. Peery



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