Government Secrecy That Denies Defendant A Fair Trial – Because of Reasons

In Davis v. Ayala, defendant Hector Ayala challenged the prosecutor’s use of preemptory challenges in an apparently racially motivated fashion. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to disclose his reasons in an ex parte session, without the defense present. Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Batson, the defendant should have had the opportunity to inquiry into the bona fides of the prosecutor’s claimed motivations. Based upon the prosecutor’s one-sided presentation, the trial judge ruled that the prosecutor had valid, race-neutral grounds for the contested strikes. After a trial, the empanelled jury convicted Ayala of murder, and sentenced him to death. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the trial court’s error was harmless. Davis v. Ayala, Supreme Court, No. 13–1428 (June 18, 2015). Justice Kennedy issued a concurrence. His conscience was curiously not troubled by the Star Chamber proceedings, but the facts of Ayala’s post-conviction incarceration, which has taken place largely in solitary confinement.

Remarkably, the New York Times weighed in on the Ayala case, but not to castigate the Court for rubber-stamping Kafkaesque Rules of Procedure that permits the defense to be excluded and prevented from exercising its Constitutionally protected role. The Times chose to spill ink instead on Justice Kennedy’s concurrence on the length of solitary confinement. Editorial, “Justice Kennedy on Solitary Confinement,” N.Y. Times (June 19, 2015).

What is curious about Justice Kennedy’s focus, and the Times’ cheerleading, is that they run roughshod over a procedural error that excused prosecutorial secrecy and that affected the adjudication of guilt or innocence, only to obsess about whether a man, taken to be guilty, has been treated inhumanely by the California prison system. Even more curious is the willingness to the Times to castigate, on bogus legal grounds, Justice Thomas for responding to Justice Kennedy:

“In a brief, sour retort that read more like a comment to a blog post, Justice Clarence Thomas quipped that however small Mr. Ayala’s current accommodations may be, they are ‘a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims, Ernesto Dominguez Mendez, Marcos Antonio Zamora, and Jose Luis Rositas, now rest’. It was a bizarre and unseemly objection. The Eighth Amendment does not operate on a sliding scale depending on the gravity of a prisoner’s crime.”

Id. (emphasis added). Except, of course, the Eight Amendment’s requirement of proportionality does operate on a sliding scale[1]. In Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008), for instance, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibited a state from imposing the death penalty to punish a child rapist because of the sanction’s disproportionality[2].

Perhaps the New York Times could hire a struggling young lawyer to fact check its legal pronouncements? Both Justice Kennedy and Justice Thomas were in the same majority that would tolerate denying the defendant of his constitutional right to examine prosecutor’s motivation for striking black and Hispanic jurors. What a “sour note” for the Times to sound over Justice Thomas’s empathy for the victims of the defendant’s crimes.


[1] William W. Berry III, “Eighth Amendment Differentness,” 78 Missouri L. Rev. 1053 (2013); Charles Walter Schwartz, “Eighth Amendment Proportionality Analysis and the Compelling Case of William Rummel,” 71 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 378 (1980); John F. Stinneford, “Rethinking Proportionality Under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause,” 97 Va. L. Rev. 899 (2011).

[2] Also curious was that then Senator Barack Obama criticized the Supreme Court for its decision in the Kennedy case. See Sara Kugler “Obama Disagrees With High Court on Child Rape Case,” ABC News (June 25, 2008) (archived from the original).

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