Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Buckley v. Terhune (9th Cir. - January 25, 2005)

Judge Bea writes a very interesting dissent here, in which he applies regular California contract principles to a criminal plea agreement, contending that even if Buckley subjectively understood that he would be sentenced from 15 years to life, he was still entitled to a maximum sentence of 15 years since the written agreement itself stated that the maximum sentence he'd receive would be 15 years (not 15 to life) -- since, after all, the plain meaning of a written instrument is dispositive, ambiguities are interpreted against the drafter, etc. etc. Whereas Judges Trott and Rawlinson hold that the defendant knew what he was doing and hence was not entitled to habeas. Shockingly.

As an aside, I wonder if my reaction to this case is totally idiosyncratic. Even though all three of the judges thought that Buckley subjectively knew that he was pleading from 15 years to life, I had precisely the opposite reaction. In the written plea agreement, the relevant portion -- which Buckley initials -- says that he understands that he "could be sentenced to the state prison for a maximum possible term of 15 years" (not 15-to-life). Then at the plea hearing, here's the relevant exchange: "Q [Prosecutor]: Do you understand that for second degree murder you could be sentenced to state prison for a maximum possible term of 15 years. A [Buckley]: Yes." Plus Buckely's got an attorney testifying that the prosecutor told him that Buckley's plea would result in a 15-year sentence (not 15-to-life), and his mother testifying that the prosecutor told her that Buckley would be sentenced to 15 years and hence probably out (with good time credits) in 7 and a half. And even if you're like me and don't entirely trust this kind of testimony, given what the what's in the written plea agreement as well as the relevant exchange at the plea hearing, this particular testimony seems fairly plausible.

Admittedly, it's perhaps possible that notwithstanding these statements, Buckley knew that it was really a 15-to-life deal (although I actually think that -- properly intepreted -- the record is almost entirely devoid of any evidence that supports such a belief). Regardless, after the AEDPA, it's hard to displace state factual findings on habeas. So maybe the majority indeed gets it right. (Though Judge Bea's dissent makes some very good points, to which the majority essentially doesn't respond at all.)

That said, I was more interested to learn that I was apparently the only person in the universe who thought that Buckley really didn't know that he was pleading to the 15-to-life sentence to which the majority binds him. Which just proves how out of it I am. Which, again, is hardly shocking.