U.S. Supreme Court

Scalia Hits 9th Circuit in Case of Overturned 'Skid Row Stabber' Conviction

Justice Antonin Scalia complained about errant decisions by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday in a dissent to the Supreme Court’s refusal to consider an overturned conviction in two “Skid Row Stabber” slayings.

Scalia said the 9th Circuit “stretched the facts” and “also stretched the Constitution” when it found California violated due process by using testimony from a jailhouse informant known to be a liar. There is no proof the informant lied in the case against the defendant, Bobby Joe Maxwell, and the federal appeals court ignored federal law barring readjudication of issues already decided, Scalia said. His dissent (PDF) was joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The 9th Circuit had found the informant was a “habitual liar” who would read newspaper stories and offer testimony for the prosecution in exchange for favors, the Los Angeles Times reports. The 9th Circuit also said the prosecution had failed to disclose a secret deal with the informant, the Associated Press reports. SCOTUSblog noted the “spirited debate” among the justices over the cert denial.

Scalia’s opinion took aim at the 9th Circuit and its penchant for overturning convictions. “It is a regrettable reality that some federal judges like to second-guess state courts,” Scalia wrote. “The only way this court can ensure observance of Congress’s abridgement of their habeas power is to perform the unaccustomed task of reviewing utterly fact-bound decisions that present no disputed issues of law. We have often not shrunk from that task, which we have found particularly needful with regard to decisions of the 9th Circuit.”

Taking the other side was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who issued a statement (PDF) citing an “avalanche of evidence” raising questions about the testimony of the informant. Sotomayor supported the court’s refusal to review the 9th Circuit decision that overturned Maxwell’s conviction in two killings. As many as 10 homeless men were killed in Los Angeles in the string of slayings in the 1970s, the Los Angeles Times says.

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