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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Waddington v. Sarausad: Ambiguous Jury Instruction Not Clearly Established Wrong

Sarausad drove with fellow gang members to a high school, in order to retaliate against a rival gang. With knowledge that his front-seat passenger was armed and going to shoot, Sarausad drove toward a group of students standing outside the school. The passenger opened fire, killing one student and wounding another. A jury convicted Sarausad of second degree murder, second degree attempted murder, and second degree assault based on accomplice liability. The accomplice liability jury instructions mirrored a state statute and had been upheld by Washington state courts. A federal judge granted habeas relief and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding the instruction ambiguous under state law, because there is a reasonable probability that a jury would apply the instructions to relieve the prosecution of its obligation to prove all elements of the crime. The Supreme Court reversed, holding, that the state-court decision did not result in an "unreasonable application of ... clearly established Federal law," as is required for relief under sec.2254(d)(1).