On the Docket Oct. 15: Jury Instructions & Murder Theories

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Case: Waddington v. Sarausad

Date: Wednesday October 15, 2008

Issue: Can a federal appeals court independently conclude that jury instructions were too vague, even though those instructions pass state constitutional muster?

Background: In 1994, Cesar Sarausad was driving his car toward a Seattle-area high school. His front-seat passenger and fellow gang member, Brian Ronquillo, fired several shots at the students. One student was shot in the head and killed. Another student was wounded. Sarausad knew that Ronquillo was armed and that he was going to shoot.

Even though he wasn't the triggerman, a jury convicted Sarausad of second degree intentional murder. Washington courts upheld the conviction but the Ninth Circuit concluded that the jury instructions violated the Due Process Clause. The court concluded that the jury instructions were ambiguous with regard to accomplice liability under Washington law and that there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury misapplied the instruction in a manner that relieved the prosecution of its burden to prove all the elements of the crime. Sarausad's murder conviction was vacated.

Case: Hedgpeth v. Pulido

Date: Wednesday October 15, 2008

Issue: Did the Ninth Circuit fail to conform to clearly established Supreme Court law when it granted habeas corpus relief by deeming an erroneous jury instruction on one of two alternative theories of guilt to be "structural error" requiring reversal because the jury might have relied on it?

Background: This is another jury instruction case that involves a convicted murderer. Michael Pulido was 16 in 1992 when he took part in a gas station robbery that left the clerk dead. The jurors were presented with three alternative theories of how the crime went down, and the jury eventually returned a unanimous guilty verdict. Upon further review, it was determined that one of those theories was legally unsound. The state argued and the California Supreme Court ruled that the inclusion of that third invalid theory to the jury represented a "harmless" error. Pulido appealed to the federal court and found success. That decision, which was later upheld by the Ninth Circuit, determined that the extraneous theory presented to the jury was not "harmless," but rather held substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury. Pulido's conviction was overturned. Now the state looks to reinstate his conviction with a favorable ruling from the High Court.