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Echavarria v. Filson

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

July 25, 2018

Jose L. Echavarria, Petitioner-Appellee/Petitioner-Appellant,
Timothy Filson, Warden; Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General, Respondents-Appellants/Respondents/Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted December 6, 2017 Pasadena, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court No. 3:98-cv-00202-MMD-VPC for the District of Nevada Miranda M. Du, District Judge, Presiding

          Jeffrey Morgan Conner (argued), Deputy Attorney General; Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General; Carson City, Nevada, for Respondents-Appellants/Appellees.

          Randolph Fiedler (argued), Sylvia A. Irvin, and Michael Pescetta, Assistant Federal Public Defenders; Rene Valladares, Federal Public Defender; Office of the Federal Public Defender, Las Vegas, Nevada; for Petitioner-Appellee/Appellant.

          Before: William A. Fletcher, Marsha S. Berzon, and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges.


         Criminal Law

         The panel affirmed the district court's grant of habeas corpus relief to Jose Echavarria, who was convicted and sentenced to death for killing FBI Special Agent John Bailey.

         Echavarria claimed that there was a constitutionally intolerable risk of bias, based on the fact that several years earlier Agent Bailey had investigated for possible criminal prosecution Nevada District Judge Jack Lehman, who presided over Echavarria's trial.

         The panel reviewed the Nevada Supreme Court's decision de novo, rather than with AEDPA deference, because the Nevada Supreme Court adjudicated only Echavarria's claim of actual bias, not his distinct claim of risk of bias.

         The panel held that Echavarria's right to due process was violated because for an average judge in Judge Lehman's position there would have been a constitutionally intolerable risk of bias.



         In this capital case, the State of Nevada appeals from a grant of habeas corpus to Petitioner Jose Echavarria. Echavarria was convicted and sentenced to death for killing an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"). Several years earlier, that same FBI agent had investigated for possible criminal prosecution the judge who presided over Echavarria's trial. Echavarria was never told of the connection between the FBI agent and the judge. The district court held that this unrevealed connection violated due process by creating a constitutionally intolerable risk of judicial bias. We agree.

         I. Factual Background

         According to the evidence presented at trial, Echavarria attempted to rob a Las Vegas bank on June 25, 1990. FBI Special Agent John Bailey was at the bank on unrelated FBI business. Echavarria tried to rob a teller at gunpoint. The teller screamed, and Echavarria abandoned the robbery attempt. As Echavarria walked toward the bank's front door, Agent Bailey drew his gun, identified himself as an FBI agent, and ordered Echavarria to stop. Echavarria continued walking. Agent Bailey fired a shot that shattered the glass in the door. Echavarria stopped and, at Agent Bailey's orders, dropped his gun. Agent Bailey frisked Echavarria and asked a bank employee to retrieve handcuffs from Agent Bailey's car.

         Before Echavarria could be handcuffed, he knocked Agent Bailey to the ground. Echavarria retrieved his gun and shot Agent Bailey three times. Echavarria then ran out of the bank and got into a car in which his getaway driver, Carlos Gurry, was waiting. Gurry was apprehended by Las Vegas police that afternoon. Echavarria drove the getaway car to Juarez, Mexico, arriving there early the next morning.

         A. FBI Assistance to the Prosecution

         The FBI immediately launched an investigation. FBI Agent Alvaro Cruz testified at a suppression hearing in state court that he agreed that the case was of "great importance" to his office "because of the fact that it was a special agent of the FBI, who was a victim of this homicide."

         On the morning of June 26, the FBI contacted Jose Rubalcava, Commandante of the Chihuahua State Judicial Police in Juarez, Mexico, to ask for his assistance in locating and arresting Echavarria. Commandante Rubalcava, who had a long-standing cooperative arrangement with the FBI, assigned twenty-eight agents to the task. Mexican authorities arrested Echavarria that night at about 8:30 pm at the Juarez airport and took him to the Juarez police station. After learning of Echavarria's arrest, four agents from the FBI's El Paso office, including Agent Cruz, drove across the border, arriving at the Juarez police station at about 11:00 pm.

         Echavarria signed a confession the next morning. Before trial, he moved for suppression of his confession, alleging that it was obtained by torture.

         Oren Gordon, a former employee of the Drug Enforcement Administration with experience working along the U.S.-Mexico border, testified at the hearing on Echavarria's suppression motion:

Q: And what was the general reputation of law enforcement agents in Mexico, for the use of physical abuse and torture, to obtain statements from suspects and witnesses?
A: It was a common occurrence. It was a regular technique used to entice the person or induce the person to say what they wanted him to say . . . .

         Gordon testified further that Mexican authorities used electrical devices to administer shocks during interrogations. He testified that devices with transformers, characterized by a humming sound when turned on, generally did not leave marks.

         Agent Manuel Marquez, one of the four FBI agents who drove to Juarez, denied knowing this general reputation. When asked whether Mexican law enforcement authorities have a "reputation among law enforcement agents, with whom you interface, as obtaining statements through torture or physical abuse," he responded, "Within the law enforcement community, no." When asked about the reputation "within the community in Juarez and El Paso," Agent Marquez responded, "Yes."

         Echavarria testified at the suppression hearing that he was tortured by the Mexican police. According to Echavarria, police officers hit him while he was in the car on the way from the airport to the police station. When they arrived at the station, he was taken to the "Commandante," who advised him to cooperate, or else Maria, Echavarria's former girlfriend who had helped him when he arrived in Juarez, "would be paying the consequences." When Echavarria refused to cooperate, he was taken to the second floor of the police station, where his clothes were taken off. He was told to spread his legs. The Mexican police beat him in the face, using an open hand to avoid leaving marks, and between the legs. After about an hour or an hour and a half, Echavarria was clothed and taken back down to the first floor. He was put in a room with the Commandante and two FBI agents, one of whom spoke Spanish. The agents "asked me then if I was ready to make a confession." When Echavarria refused, the Commandante "told his agent to take [Echavarria] upstairs to the second floor again."

         Once back on the second floor, Echavarria was again stripped. This time, he was blindfolded. He was again beaten in the face and between the legs. He heard someone cock a gun next to his ear, and then felt the gun pressed against his head. Echavarria was told he would be shot and thrown in the river. Next, he heard what sounded like a welding machine being turned on, and the officers shocked Echavarria's "private parts." They kept asking "[i]f I was ready to make a confession."

         Echavarria was then taken down to the first floor, where "there was a tall white hair man who was a FBI of the United States . . . [who] would ask me again whether I was going to cooperate with them." Echavarria was also taken to the basement, where his former girlfriend Maria and her sister were being held. Police officers threatened to beat Maria and "tighten her nipples, the breast nipples," and do other "obscene things" to her.

         Having been brought "up to the second floor twice and . . . once down to the cell downstairs," Echavarria signed a confession. He testified that he did so because "I had no alternative."

         The prosecution called as witnesses at the suppression hearing two of the four FBI agents who had driven together to Juarez. Agent Cruz testified that he and the other agents met with Commandante Rubalcava and several other Mexican police officers, and that Echavarria was brought into the room. Agent Cruz testified that they interviewed Echavarria for about thirty minutes. He also testified that none of the four FBI agents who went to Juarez had white hair. Agent Marquez estimated that the interview took thirty to forty minutes. He testified that he gave Miranda warnings to Echavarria orally, but that Echavarria did not sign the usual FBI form acknowledging the warnings because the FBI agents did not have the form with them.

         Agents Cruz and Marquez both testified that they saw no marks on Echavarria or other indications of physical abuse, and that they never saw Echavarria again that night. Agent Cruz testified, "I believe ...

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