Bench Memos

Re: Summary Reversal of Ninth Circuit Judge Reinhardt

A few follow-up points to my earlier post (as well as thanks to the reader who called them to my attention):

1.  As Jack Dunphy highlights on The Corner, the unanimous Supreme Court in Wong v. Belmontes states that it “simply cannot comprehend the assertion by the Court of Appeals [opinion of Judge Reinhardt, joined by Judge Paez] that this case did not involve ‘needless suffering’”: 

The jury saw autopsy photographs showing Steacy McConnell’s mangled head, her skull crushed by 15 to 20 blows from a steel dumbbell bar the jury found to have been wielded by Belmontes. McConnell’s corpse showed numerous “defensive bruises and contusions on [her] hands, arms, and feet,” which “plainly evidenced a desperate struggle for life at [Belmontes’] hands.” Belmontes left McConnell to die, but officers found her still fighting for her life before ultimately succumbing to the injuries caused by the blows from Belmontes.  The jury also heard that this savage murder was committed solely to prevent interference with a burglary that netted Belmontes $100 he used to buy beer and drugs for the night.  McConnell suffered, and it was clearly needless.  [Internal citations omitted.]

2.  The Court also notes that the Ninth Circuit majority, in addressing for the first time the murderer’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, suddenly “changed its view of the evidence.”  Mitigation evidence that it had, in an earlier phase of the litigation, called “substantial” somehow became “cursory” and “insubstantial.”

3.  Whereas Reinhardt had concluded that “[t]here can be little doubt” that counsel’s performance “was prejudicial,” the Supreme Court labels “fanciful” the notion that any prejudice resulted.

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