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Ninth Circuit faulted — again

For almost five full years, the Supreme Court has been troubled by a Ninth Circuit Court ruling choosing up sides between medical analysts over how a seven-week-old boy died in Van Nuys, Calif., 15 years ago.  On Monday, for the third time, the Court — in what appeared to be a 6-3 ruling — again told the Circuit Court it had been wrong, and in effect ordered the lower court to end the case by reinstating a jury verdict convicting the boy’s grandmother for his death.  It is not a rarity, of course, for the Court to second-guess the Ninth Circuit, but the case of Cavazos v. Smith (10-1115), decided summarily on Monday, is one of the most vivid examples of the Court’s sometime frustration with the frequently liberal West Coast tribunal.

It apparently was not easy for the Court to dispose of the case even as it finally did.   The latest appeal by California officials had reached the Court last March, and the Justices actually had it before them at private Conferences 12 times since then.  They carried it over to the new Term and worked away on it over the past month.  The decision overturning the Circuit Court came in a an unsigned nine-page opinion, conceding that there were “understandable doubts” about the grandmother’s guilt, but sternly admonishing the lower court that “the jury decided that question,” and it was not for the appeals court to conclude otherwise.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a nine-page dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.  (Had they picked up a fourth vote, the Court could have reviewed the case — as the dissenters wanted as an alternative to their first choice, a simple denial of review — instead of disposing of it on the merits without full briefing and oral argument.)

What Monday’s action means, in both a practical and legal sense, is that the boy’s grandmother, Shirley Ree Smith, who has been free for the past five years, must return to prison to continue serving a 15-years-to-life sentence, or else seek clemency from California’s Gov. Jerry Brown.   The Supreme Court majority mentioned the possibility of clemency, but said that was “not for the Judicial Branch” to determine.  “If the clemency power is exercised in either too generous or too stingy a way,” the majority remarked, “that calls for political correctives, not judicial intervention.”

Since an initial Ninth Circuit ruling in her favor in 2006, Smith has been free, awaiting the outcome of repeated appeals by the state.  She has been living in a run-down abode, the Russ Hotel, on Los Angeles’ skid row.   The first time the Circuit Court ruled in her favor in 2006, the Supreme Court in 2007 vacated that decision and ordered reconsideration.  The Circuit Court held to its prior conclusion later in 2007, but that, too, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2010.  The Circuit Court stood fast later in 2010, but that is the result that was overturned Monday.

At the trial, and since, the dispute has centered on conflicting medical theories of how the infant, Etzel Smith, had died during the night of November 29, 1996, when the boy, his mother, grandmother and two siblings were spending the night at the Van Nuys apartment of the baby’s great aunt.   The prosecution relied upon three medical analysts’ conclusion that the baby had died from “shaken baby syndrome,” while two medical analysts for the defense argued that the medical evidence about how the baby had died was inconclusive.  The prosecution theory was that the grandmother had shaken the baby so violently that it caused his death.  The jury went with that theory, and convicted the grandmother of “assault on a child resulting in death.”

The repeated decisions of the Ninth Circuit, and the Supreme Court’s initial and then final rulings, depended upon how a court should apply a 1979 Supreme Court precedent, Jackson v. Virginia.  That decision announced a constitutional standard for judging whether criminal evidence was sufficient to support a conviction.   Although told twice by the Supreme Court to consider other, more recent precedents, the Circuit Court had twice concluded that those did not change its view that the evidence did not support grandmother Smith’s conviction.

In Monday’s majority opinion, the Justices did not undertake to judge for themselves who had the better of the analysts’ trial dispute, although the majority did conclude that there was evidence at the trial supporting the “shaken baby” theory.  The opinion, though, focused more on what it stressed was the Circuit Court’s duty not to disturb the jury verdict simply because it would have weighed the evidence differently itself.   “The Court of Appeals in this case substituted its judgment for that of a California jury,” and that was “plainly wrong,” the majority said.  “The decision below cannot be allowed to stand,” it remarked.

The majority tartly criticized the Circuit Court for how it had reacted to the Supreme Court’s two prior returns of the case.  “Each time,” the majority said, “the panel persisted in its course, reinstating its judgment without seriously confronting the significance of the cases called to its attention.”  That comment led the dissenting Justices to remark that the majority “is bent on rebuking the Ninth Circuit for what it conceives to be defiance of our prior remands.”  Justice Ginsburg wrote that “I would not ignore Smith’s plight and choose her case as a fit opportunity to teach the Ninth Circuit a lesson.”

The dissenting opinion initially argued that the Court should not have granted review, because it was merely a dispute over facts, not deserving of the Court’s time.  But the dissent also went on to argue that, at a minimum, the Court would have benefited by granting review and having a full adversary bout over the outcome.  In addition, the dissent argued that medical knowledge had developed considerably since the trial in this case, casting new doubt on the validity of the prosecution theory that this small boy had died from being shaken violently by his grandmother.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Ninth Circuit faulted — again, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 31, 2011, 11:42 AM),