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Law School Case Brief

Waddington v. Sarausad - 555 U.S. 179, 129 S. Ct. 823 (2009)


Habeas precedent places an especially heavy burden on a defendant who seeks to show constitutional error from a jury instruction that quotes a state statute. Even if there is some ambiguity, inconsistency, or deficiency in the instruction, such an error does not necessarily constitute a due process violation. Rather, the defendant must show both that the instruction was ambiguous and that there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the instruction in a way that relieved the state of its burden of proving every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In making this determination, the jury instruction may not be judged in artificial isolation, but must be considered in the context of the instructions as a whole and the trial record. Because it is not enough that there is some slight possibility that the jury misapplied the instruction, the pertinent question is whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process.


Respondent Cesar Sarausad drove the car in a driveby shooting at a high school, which was the culmination of a gang dispute. En route to school, Ronquillo, the front seat passenger, covered his lower face and readied a handgun. Sarausad slowed down upon reaching the school, Ronquillo fired at a group of students, killing one and wounding another, and Sarausad then sped away. He, Ronquillo, and Reyes, another passenger, were tried on murder and related charges. Sarausad and Reyes, who were tried as accomplices, argued that they were not accomplices to murder because they had not known Ronquillo's plan and had expected at most another fistfight. In her closing argument, the prosecutor stressed Sarausad's knowledge of a shooting, noting how he drove at the scene, that he knew that fighting alone would not regain respect for his gang, and that he was "in for a dime, in for a dollar." The jury received two instructions that directly quoted Washington's accomplice-liability law. When the jury failed to reach a verdict as to Reyes, the judge declared a mistrial as to him. The jury then convicted Ronquillo on all counts and convicted Sarausad of second-degree murder and related crimes.

In affirming Sarausad's conviction, the state appellate court, among other things, referred to an "in for a dime, in for a dollar" accomplice-liability theory. Sarausad filed a petition for postconviction relief, arguing that the prosecutor's improper "in for a dime, in for a dollar" argument may have led the jury to convict him as an accomplice to murder based solely on a finding that he had anticipated that an assault would occur. The Supreme Court of Washington denied Sarausad's petition, holding that the trial court correctly instructed the jury and that no prejudicial error resulted from the prosecutor's potentially improper hypothetical. Sarausad then sought review under 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254, which, inter alia, permitted a federal court to grant habeas relief. The District Court granted the petition, which the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding it unreasonable for the state court to affirm Sarausad's conviction because the jury instruction on accomplice liability was ambiguous and there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury misinterpreted the instruction in a way that relieved the State of its burden of proving Sarausad's knowledge of a shooting beyond a reasonable doubt. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Did the federal appellate court err in granting habeas corpus relief to Sarausad?




Because the state court decision did not result in an "unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law," the United States Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit erred in granting habeas relief to Sarausad. The Court held that the jury was properly instructed that, in order to find the inmate guilty as an accomplice, the inmate must have had knowledge that his conduct would promote or facilitate the commission of the murder. The instruction properly quoted the accomplice-liability statute, Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.08.020 (2008), in requiring that the inmate have knowledge of the crime with which the inmate was charged as an accomplice. Further, there was no reasonable likelihood that the prosecutor's arguably improper closing statement influenced the jury, because both the prosecution and the defense focused on Sarausad's knowledge of the shooting.

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