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Prosecutors and tough-on-crime groups cheered Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a federal appeal court ruling out of California that had given new life to appeals by condemned men throughout the West. The justices will decide if San Francisco’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals erred in saying a six-year-old federal law didn’t prevent it from reversing the death sentence of convicted murderer Robert Garceau. The justices could use the case to bring the 9th Circuit’s reading of the law in line with the rest of the country’s. Garceau, a Hells Angel biker, was sentenced to death for the 1984 murders of his girlfriend, Maureen Bautista, and her 14-year-old son, Telesforo, in Bakersfield. The California Supreme Court in 1994 upheld the convictions, even though it ruled that the trial judge had erred in allowing testimony that Garceau was a drug dealer who had murdered before. Three years ago, the 9th Circuit in a split vote threw out the conviction, saying that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — which requires federal courts to uphold convictions if the state court reasonably applied existing law — did not apply to Garceau because he had requested a stay of execution and appointment of counsel before the act was signed. The ruling not only overturned the California Supreme Court, but also Sacramento U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who had upheld the conviction. The 9th Circuit denied rehearing en banc in 2002. “This is exactly the kind of decision that Congress prohibited in its 1996 reform of habeas corpus,” Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “The considered, reasonable judgment of the state’s highest court is overturned merely because two out of four federal judges disagree with it.” As is normal, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t explain why it accepted review in Woodford v. Garceau, 01-1862, but petitioners had pointed out that the 9th Circuit decision conflicted with all other federal circuits that had dealt with the issue. Those courts interpreted the high court’s 1997 ruling in Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, to mean that AEDPA applies if the actual petition was filed on or after the act’s April 24, 1996, effective date. The 9th Circuit’s position wasn’t staked out in the Garceau case, but in a 1998 ruling in Calderon v. United States District Court (Kelly), 163 F.3d 530. The holding in Calderon was applied to Garceau. San Francisco-based Senior Assistant Attorney General Dane Gillette, who is the state’s capital case coordinator, said Tuesday that prosecutors had previously asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Kelly ruling and one other previous case that held the same. He said he has no idea why the high court chose Garceau over those two, but was pleased nonetheless. “If the court accepts our argument in this case,” he said, “it means a number of capital cases in the federal courts that were not covered by the provisions of the 1996 habeas reform act — specifically the deference standard — would be covered by it.” Clayton Tanaka, a deputy AG in Sacramento, is listed as the lawyer of record for the Garceau case in the Supreme Court. San Francisco-based State Public Defender Lynne Coffin, who has represented Garceau throughout the appeal process, said Tuesday that she was “shocked” that the high court had taken the case after passing review on similar cases. She said she believes she would still prevail if the 9th Circuit were ordered to hear the case under the rules of AEDPA. “But,” she added, “there are also other cases in California that are in similar postures, and were we to lose on this issue, they would come under the act.” Scheidegger, of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said in his statement that the high court’s pending ruling could have a “major impact” on the processing of capital cases because death row inmates may obtain stays for years before filing habeas petitions. “The 9th Circuit’s position on this issue,” he said, “is one of the reasons that states of the Far West have carried out fewer executions than states in other circuits.”

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