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SUMNER v. MATA

decided: January 21, 1981.

SUMNER, WARDEN
v.
MATA



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Stewart, White, and Powell, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a statement concurring in the result, post, p. 552. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 552.

Author: Rehnquist

[ 449 U.S. Page 541]

 JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

A divided Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that respondent's state-court murder conviction was constitutionally invalid. Its holding has two bases: (1) the pretrial photographic identification procedure employed by state police was "so impermissibly suggestive as to give rise to a very substantial likelihood of irreparable in-court misidentification of the [respondent]"; and (2) the admission of the in-court identification "constituted error of constitutional dimension." 611 F.2d 754, 755 (1979). The question before us is whether the Court of Appeals properly analyzed respondent's challenge to his state-court murder conviction, given the limited nature of the review provided federal courts by 28 U. S. C. § 2254.

I

In 1973, respondent was convicted in the Superior Court of Kern County, Cal., of the first-degree murder of one of his fellow inmates at a California correctional institution. At trial, three witnesses testified that they had witnessed all or part of the attack on the inmate and identified respondent as participating in the murder. Respondent offered as an alibi three other witnesses who testified that respondent was in bed at the time the stabbing occurred. At no point did respondent object to his in-court identification by the State's three eyewitnesses.

On direct appeal to the California Court of Appeal, respondent claimed for the first time that the pretrial photographic identification employed by the state police violated

[ 449 U.S. Page 542]

     the due process of law guaranteed him by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The California Court of Appeal analyzed his contention under the test earlier enunciated by this Court in Simmons v. United States, 390 U.S. 377 (1968). The court explained that each case must be considered on its own facts and a violation of due process will occur and a conviction will be set aside only if the photographic identification procedure was so impermissibly suggestive as to give rise to a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification. The California court then rejected respondent's contention, in this language:

"Reviewing the facts of the present case to determine if the particular photographic identification procedure used contained the proscribed suggestive characteristics, we first find that the photographs were available for cross-examination purposes at the trial. We further find that there is no showing of influence by the investigating officers[;] that the witnesses had an adequate opportunity to view the crime; and that their descriptions are accurate. The circumstances thus indicate the inherent fairness of the procedure, and we find no error in the admission of the identification evidence." App. to Pet. for Cert. C-4 -- C-5.

Respondent did not seek direct review of the California Court of Appeal's decision with the California Supreme Court. He did, however, later raise the pretrial identification issue in state habeas corpus proceedings. The California Superior Court, the California Court of Appeal, and the California Supreme Court all denied relief.

On December 9, 1977, respondent filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California and again raised the pretrial identification issue. On May 23, 1978, the District Court denied the petition and respondent

[ 449 U.S. Page 543]

     appealed this order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The court, employing the same standard used by the California state courts, concluded "the photographic identification was so impermissibly suggestive as to give rise to a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification." 611 F.2d, at 759. This conclusion was based, inter alia, on the court's finding that (1) the circumstances surrounding the witnesses' observation of the crime were such that there was a grave likelihood of misidentification; (2) the witnesses had failed to give sufficiently detailed descriptions of the assailant; and (3) considerable pressure from both prison officials and prison factions had been brought to bear on the witnesses. Id., at 758-759.

II

The findings made by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit are considerably at odds with the findings made by the California Court of Appeal. Both courts made their findings after reviewing the state-court trial record and neither court has indicated that this record is not a completely adequate record upon which to base such findings.

If this were simply a run-of-the-mine case in which an appellate court had reached an opposite conclusion from a trial court in a unitary judicial system, there would be little reason for invocation of this Court's discretionary jurisdiction to make a third set of findings. But unfortunately for the smooth functioning of our federal system, which consists of 50 state judicial systems and one national judicial system, this is not such a run-of-the-mine case. Instead, this case presents important questions regarding the role to be played by the federal courts in the exercise of the habeas corpus jurisdiction conferred upon them by 28 U. S. C. § 2254.

It has long been established, as to those constitutional issues which may properly be raised under § 2254, that even a single

[ 449 U.S. Page 544]

     federal judge may overturn the judgment of the highest court of a State insofar as it deals with the application of the United States Constitution or laws to the facts in question. As might be imagined, this result was not easily arrived at under the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867, the predecessor to 28 U. S. C. § 2254. But the present doctrine, adumbrated in the Court's opinion in Moore v. Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86 (1923), and culminating in this Court's opinion in Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391 (1963), is that the Act of 1867 allows such collateral attack.

The petitioner asserts that in reaching its decision the majority of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit failed to observe certain limitations on its authority specifically set forth in 28 U. S. C. § 2254 (d). Section 2254 (d) provides:

"(d) In any proceeding instituted in a Federal court by an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court, a determination after a hearing on the merits of a factual issue, made by a State court of competent jurisdiction in a proceeding to which the applicant for the writ and the State or an officer or agent thereof were parties, evidenced by a written finding, written opinion, or other reliable and adequate written indicia, shall be presumed to be correct, unless the applicant shall establish or it shall otherwise appear, or the respondent shall admit --

"(1) that the merits of the factual dispute were not resolved in the State court hearing;

"(2) that the factfinding procedure employed by the State court was not adequate to afford ...


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