California Supreme Court Tightens Its Limits on Habeas Corpus Petitions

There were many headlines about the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in In re Bacigalupo, which tossed the 25-year-old murder conviction of Miguel Angel Bacigalupo. That decision was based upon a claim made in Bacigalupo’s petition for habeas corpus that an investigator had lied about evidence key to Bacigalupo’s case.

Conversely, earlier this week the Supreme Court issued another decision regarding capital habeas corpus cases that is much less favorable to criminal defendants. The ruling places strict new limits on such petitions and warns that sanctions could be levied against attorneys that fail to comply. The Court’s decision, In re Reno, criticized lawyers for the defendant, Reno, who was previously known as Harold Ray Memro, stating that the habeas corpus petition was “untimely,” “improper,” “patently meritless,” “grossly misleading” and based on “stock justifications.”

Reno has been on death row for 32 years, sentenced to death in 1980 after being convicted of the murders of two pre-teen boys in 1978 and the murder and sexual assault of a 7-year-old boy in 1976. In 1985, the California Supreme Court ordered a new trial wherein Reno was convicted again and sentenced to death a second time.

On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and, in 1995, rejected Reno’s first habeas corpus petition. In 1998, Reno brought another habeas action in federal court. The federal court found that 18 of Reno’s claims had not yet been exhausted and ordered his case be considered further by the California Supreme Court. In 2004, Reno filed his second state habeas petition, making 143 claims in 519 pages. Many of Reno’s claims had already been rejected in his first petition.

All of this is a testament to the complexity that is often present in these cases, particularly when the life of the defendant is on the line.

Writing for the majority in the Reno opinion, Justice Werdegar opined, “Voluminous in size and abounding in detail, [Reno’s] petition nevertheless raises claims almost all of which are procedurally barred. Werdegar continued, “Some death row inmates with meritorious legal claims may languish in prison for years waiting for this court’s review while we evaluate [other prisoners’] petitions raising dozens or even hundreds of frivolous and untimely claims.”

The court proclaimed that, although there is no limit on initial habeas petitions, subsequent petitions were to be limited to 50 pages. Petitions must also explicitly state which, if any, claims have been raised and rejected before, could have been raised earlier, are “truly new,” and have been deemed unexhausted by a federal court. The Court further stated that “attorneys (and parties) in future cases are forewarned” that failing to follow the guidelines could “result in financial sanctions and/or having this court refer the offending attorney to the State Bar for potential discipline.”

It will be interesting to see how this new decision actually affects future habeas petitions. If nothing else, it is a reminder that defendants need the help of criminal defense attorneys who honestly, fairly, but strategically leave no stone unturned when fighting for the rights of their client.

Orange County criminal defense attorney Lauren K. Johnson has extensive experience protecting the rights of the accused, especially in the context post-conviction proceedings. If you have questions regarding California’s criminal law or your rights, contact attorney Lauren K. Johnson today.