U.S. Supreme Court hears California death penalty appeal

The Supreme Court last week heard an appeal from a San Fernando Valley murderer that helps explain why death penalty cases in California are so prolonged.

But if state prosecutors have their way, many of them could be shortened in the future.

It is the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between state and federal judges over the death penalty. And the case of Scott Pinholster raises a potentially crucial issue with national impact: Can new evidence be used in federal court to upset an old and long-settled state court conviction?

“It would be a dramatic change in the law” if the high court adopts California’s no-new-evidence rule, said Sean Kennedy, a federal public defender in Los Angeles who represented Pinholster. He said it would be unfair and illogical to bar federal judges from ever considering powerful evidence that was overlooked or ignored in the state courts.


But prosecutors said they should not be forced to relitigate old cases for decades. The Republican Congress in 1996 passed a law intended to stop federal judges from second-guessing state convictions. It is time for the high court to “limit the number of bites of apple the defendant gets,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

In 1984, a jury in Van Nuys convicted a smirking and boastful Pinholster of stabbing two men to death in a burglary gone awry in Tarzana. After hearing about his many violent outbursts, the jury sentenced him to death.

State courts rejected his appeals. New lawyers sought a hearing to argue that jurors should have been told of Pinholster’s “profound mental illness,” but the state high court denied this request in a one-line order sent by postcard.

His appeal then went to a federal judge, and a strikingly different picture emerged. At age 2, Pinholster was playing in the driveway when his mother backed the car into him. He lost part of an ear and spent weeks in the hospital for his head injury. Two years later, she was in another auto accident in which her son, unbuckled in the front seat, hurtled into the windshield.

At school, Pinholster had epileptic seizures and was repeatedly removed from class as disruptive. When he was 11, he was sent to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital for five months. His teenage years were marred by drugs and frequent arrests for robberies and fighting.

On the night of the murders in Tarzana, witnesses said, Pinholster had a seizure, claimed to hear “a voice from God” and used a knife to carve signs on cars.

Two doctors testified that Pinholster had “organic brain damage” probably “due to serious childhood head trauma.” This explained his seizures and his violent outbursts, they said.

The jurors were not told of his mental illness when they were deciding whether to send him to prison for life or to death. His inexperienced trial lawyers called only one witness. Pinholster’s mother recounted the accidents and Scott’s troubles in school but painted an otherwise positive portrait of his home life.


After hearing the new medical evidence, U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor granted a writ of habeas corpus and overturned Pinholster’s death sentence. Even so, the convict would remain in prison for life.

Prosecutors appealed, but in December, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Taylor’s ruling in an 8-3 decision. “We are fully persuaded” that one or more jurors would have voted to spare Pinholster had they heard more about his brain injuries, the appeals court said.

California state attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case Tuesday. They urged the justices to bar the use of “new facts” in a federal hearing.

The “diagnosis of organic brain damage” is “a new and significant change in the factual posture of the case,” argued state Deputy Atty. Gen. James W. Bilderback II from Los Angeles.


Kennedy, the federal public defender, countered that the state judges had refused a hearing on the medical evidence and issued a “postcard denial.”

For their part, the justices sounded split and a bit perplexed.

“I have to say it’s a logical conundrum for me, too,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., since the law says the appealing inmate must “develop the factual basis of a claim” in state court even though a state court may refuse to hear the facts.

Depending on how the justices rule, Pinholster will be resentenced to life in prison or remain with the more than 700 inmates on California’s death row.