WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated the conviction and death sentence of a California man convicted of murder — even though a lower court made mistakes when it considered whether prosecutors illegally excluded blacks and Hispanics from the jury.
Splitting along ideological lines, the justices ruled 5-4 that Hector Ayala wasn't entitled to argue that prosecutors systematically excluded minority jurors during his 1989 trial for a triple murder during a drug robbery in San Diego.
During the trial, Ayala's attorney complained that prosecutors excused all seven potential jurors who were black or Hispanic. The trial judge then asked prosecutors to justify their actions, but he accepted their explanations at a private hearing at which Ayala's lawyers were not present.
A divided California Supreme Court found there were trial errors but said they were harmless. A federal court also rejected Ayala's challenge. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Ayala was denied a fair trial because he wasn't given a chance to challenge the state's justifications.
The Supreme Court ruled that the 9th Circuit should have deferred to state court findings that any error committed by the trial court was harmless.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said Ayala could not show he was "actually prejudiced" by the trial court's error. Even if Ayala's lawyers had attended the hearing, Alito said, they would not have been able to convince the trial court to reject the prosecutor's explanations anyway.
He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it "strains credulity" to suggest that a court dealing with a complex capital case would consider all the relevant facts to make a decision "without the presence of defense counsel to help bring it to their attention."
She said the exclusion of Ayala's lawyers prevented him from making his strongest argument and impeded his ability to raise the issue on appeal.
Sotomayor was joined in dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Kennedy wrote separately to note that Ayala has been held in solitary confinement for most of his 25 years in custody. He used the case as a springboard to raise concerns he has made previously about the growing trend of keeping inmates in solitary confinement up to 23 hours a day.
Kennedy said research shows that "years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price" and suggested that courts may be required in the future to decide whether there are better alternatives. Quoting Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Kennedy said: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
In a brief retort, Thomas said "the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims, Ernesto Dominguez Mendez, Marcos Antonio Zamora and Jose Luis Rositas, now rest."