HEDGPETH v. PULIDO

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
07-544
Petitioner 
Anthony Hedgpeth, Warden
Respondent 
Michael Robert Pulido
Advocates
(argued the cause for the petitioner)
(Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner)
(argued the cause for the respondent (appointed by the Court))
Term:
Facts of the Case 

Michael Pulido was convicted of first-degree murder in a California state court for his involvement in the shooting of a gas station attendant during the course of a robbery. He claimed that he was only involved in the robbery after the shooting had taken place. On appeal, Mr. Pulido argued that the jury instructions were in error and allowed a jury to convict him as an accomplice in the robbery and murder, even if he only took part in the robbery. The California Supreme Court refused to overturn the conviction holding that the error was harmless because the jury had specifically found that Mr. Pulido aided the robbery during the murder.

Mr. Pulido sought and was granted habeas relief by a federal district court in California. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. It held that instructing a jury on multiple theories of guilt, one of which was legally improper, was "structural error" entitling Mr. Pulido to automatic relief and exempted the instructions from "harmless-error" review.

Question 

Are jury instructions that instruct a jury on multiple theories of guilt, one of which is legally improper, necessarily "structural error" that exempts the instructions from a harmless-error review?

Conclusion 
Decision: 6 votes for Hedgpeth, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Jury Instructions

No. In a 6-3 per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit inaccurately categorized the type of jury instructions in Mr. Pulido's case as "structural error." It reasoned that one instructional error arising in the context of multiple theories of guilt does not necessarily spoil all the jury's findings, which would entitle the convicted individual to automatic relief. Rather, the Court found that the jury instructions in Mr. Pulido's case should be evaluated by whether they caused a "substantial and injurious effect" upon the jury reaching its verdict. The Court vacated Mr. Pulido's conviction and remanded the case to the court of appeals for proceedings consistent with the decision.

Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They found the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit merely misused the term "structural error" in its opinion, while it actually utilized the analytical model advocated by the majority opinion. They reasoned that in the interests of efficiency, the Supreme Court should have affirmed the court of appeals rather than have it repeat largely the same analysis.

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HEDGPETH v. PULIDO. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 05 April 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2008/2008_07_544>.
HEDGPETH v. PULIDO, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2008/2008_07_544 (last visited April 5, 2014).
"HEDGPETH v. PULIDO," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed April 5, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2008/2008_07_544.