Extraordinary circumstances warranted reopening of habeas petitioner’s case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) in light of petitioner’s belief that he was jointly pursuing relief in codefendant’s habeas proceedings, where relief was granted. Following a joint trial, Hall and codefendant Sherrors were convicted of first degree murder. After exhausting state court remedies on a claim of instructional error, Hall filed a pro se habeas petition in federal court. Because the petition contained one unexhausted claim, the district court ordered Hall to voluntarily dismiss his petition or file a notice of abandonment of the unexhausted claim. Hall failed to do either because he mistakenly believed he was jointly pursing the instructional claim in codefendant Sherrors’ habeas proceedings, and the district court dismissed Hall’s petition without prejudice. After Sherrors was granted habeas relief, Hall filed a motion the district court ultimately construed as a motion for relief from judgment. The court granted Hall’s motion under Rule 60(b)(6), reopened the case, and granted habeas relief. The state appealed. Held Affirmed. In certain circumstances, a district court may relieve a party from a final judgment under Rule 60(b), which applies in the habeas context to the extent it is not inconsistent with AEDPA. Under Rule 60(b)(6), a movant must show extraordinary circumstances justifying relief. Hall made that showing here. Hall’s petition was dismissed without reaching the merits of the claim, while his codefendant was granted habeas relief on the very same claim based on the same error at the same trial. Hall did not comply with the district courts order because he believed he was a “co-submitter” in Sherrors’ filings. Given Hall’s reliance on Sherrors and their history of shared proceedings in state court, the district court did not err in concluding Hall was diligent and his delay reasonable. Furthermore, Hall’s Rule 60(b) motion was not inconsistent with AEDPA as it did not violate the ban on successive habeas petitions or the exhaustion requirement, and AEDPA’s statute of limitations did not apply.
State court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law in finding that instructional error was not of constitutional magnitude. The trial court gave a jury instruction (CALJIC 2.15) which permitted the jury to infer that Hall and Sherrors murdered the victim based on their possession of the victim’s property plus slight corroborating evidence. This was error under People v. Prieto (2003) 30 Cal.4th 226, which held that use of CALJIC 2.15 in nontheft offenses is improper because proof the defendant was in possession of recently stolen property does not lead to the conclusion the defendant committed a rape or murder. Here, the Court of Appeal recognized the error, but found the error harmless under the Watson standard of prejudice, which California state courts use to review non-constitutional trial errors. However, a “permissive inference” violates due process when the presumed fact does not follow from the facts established, and here proof that Hall possessed the victim’s class ring sometime after the murder did not make it “more likely than not” that Hall killed the victim. Thus, the instruction violated due process and the state court’s finding that the error was not of constitutional magnitude was unreasonable.
Petitioner is entitled to habeas relief because the instructional error was not harmless. Habeas relief on a trial error claim is only appropriate if the error results in actual prejudice. Under the Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993) 507 U.S. 619, 637, test for actual prejudice, relief is proper only if the federal court has grave doubts about whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict. In this case, the victim was found in a pumpkin patch, stabbed 83 times. The prosecutions evidence relied overwhelmingly on the testimony of one witness, who took a plea deal in exchange for her testimony. Her story changed numerous times and was contradicted by other evidence and witnesses at trial. Aside from her testimony, the only other evidence against Hall was his possession of the victim’s ring and his presence in the passenger seat of the victim’s car a few days after the murder. Because the erroneous jury instruction allowed the jury to infer that Hall committed the murder based on the “time, place, and manner” of his possession of the victim’s property, grave doubt existed as to whether the jury would have convicted Hall without the unconstitutional permissive inference instruction. Thus, Hall is entitled to relief.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2017/07/03/14-56159.pdf