Ortiz v. Yates

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Evidence
  • Date Filed: 12-06-2012
  • Case #: 11-56383
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Berzon for the Court; Circuit Judge Ebel; Dissent by Circuit Judge Fernandez
  • Full Text Opinion

The trial court's ruling that denied the petitioner the opportunity to cross-examine his wife regarding what she perceived to be a threat from the prosecutor violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.

Adilao Juan Ortiz was convicted of willful infliction of corporal injury to his wife. The trial court sustained the District Attorney (D.A.)’s objection to Ortiz’s line of questioning regarding the wife’s testimony. Ortiz contended that his wife’s testimony was affected by what she perceived to be a threat from the D.A. that she would be charged with perjury and her baby would be taken if she recanted on the stand. Ortiz appealed to the California Court of Appeal, claiming a violation of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, and that court held that the trial court erred by not allowing the testimony because it was directly relevant to the witness’s credibility, but that the error was harmless under the state standard. The California Supreme Court denied Ortiz’s petition for review. Ortiz then filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court denied the petition because in its view, the California Court of Appeal’s ruling on state issues did not raise a constitutional issue. The Ninth Circuit held that the trial court’s ruling violated Ortiz’s confrontation right because in applying Michigan v. Lucas, (1) the testimony of Ortiz’s wife was crucial to the case and without her testimony regarding the D.A.’s threat, the jury would have no reason to question her credibility and (2) the trial court did not identify any prejudice to the wife, she would not have been prejudiced by her testimony, and examination regarding a threat of prosecution would not unduly delay the proceedings. Finally, the Court concluded that the error was not harmless, because the wife’s credibility was crucial to the State’s case as she was the sole witness to the assault and one of only three witnesses who actually testified. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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