Cavitt v. Cullen

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 08-29-2013
  • Case #: 10-16988
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Fisher for the Court; Circuit Judges Noonan and Nguyen
  • Full Text Opinion

Under California law, the “logical nexus” requirement between the felony and the victim’s death is not unconstitutionally vague because the California Supreme Court has provided guidance as to its definition.

James Freddie Cavitt and his girlfriend robbed his girlfriend’s stepmother’s home. Although Cavitt claimed the stepmother was alive when he left, a jury convicted him of felony murder. Cavitt challenged his conviction, arguing that: (1) the requirement of a “logical nexus” between the felony and the victim’s death was unconstitutionally vague; (2) the retroactive application of the “logical nexus” rule was unconstitutional under Bouie v. City of Columbia; and (3) the jury instructions, together with the evidentiary rulings, violated his constitutional rights. The Ninth Circuit rejected Cavitt’s first argument and held that the California Supreme Court had provided sufficient guidance in its definition of a “logical nexus.” Although Cavitt contended that someone else had killed the victim for reasons unrelated to the robbery after he had left the scene, the panel concluded that objective facts demonstrated a clear “logical nexus” between the felony and the victim’s subsequent death. Noting that California case law has suggested, but not directly held, that a defendant is liable for a killing unrelated to the felony, the panel deferred to the California Supreme Court’s retroactive application of the “logical nexus” rule and held that the state’s interpretation of its own law was not an unforeseeable judicial expansion violating clearly established federal law. Because Cavitt’s alternative theory of the killing was not a valid defense under California law, the panel held that the limiting instruction given to the jury was not harmful. The panel further held that because objective facts demonstrated that there was a clear connection between the felony and the victim’s subsequent death, the failure to instruct the jury to find a “logical nexus” was, at most, harmless error. AFFIRMED.

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