Ninth Circuit Grants Re-Trial for Death Row Inmate

August 4, 2020 Announcement

Court rules prosecutor engaged in unconstitutional racial discrimination during jury selection.

Farella Braun + Martel’s Pro Bono Program has won another significant victory for Marvin Pete Walker Jr., one of the longest-serving inmates on California’s death row, with the Ninth Circuit ruling on July 31 that the prosecutor had engaged in unconstitutional racial discrimination by striking all three Black jurors, and then giving demonstrably false reasons for why he did it.

The court held that this overcame the “high bar to relief,” finding it was “objectively unreasonable” for the California Supreme Court to have rejected the racial discrimination claim. “In sum, the record reveals that the prosecutor mischaracterized the views of all three black potential jurors, adopted disparate lines of questioning for black and nonblack jurors, and cited reasons for striking the black jurors that applied equally to nonblack jurors who were left on the jury.” The court has ordered the Santa Clara District Attorney to either re-try the case or release Walker. Read the opinion, here.

The pro bono effort on behalf of Walker has spanned over three decades and included two trips to the Supreme Court of California, an earlier appeal to the Ninth Circuit and years of district court litigation. The effort cleared a major hurdle toward saving Walker’s life on December 14, 2018 when U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton issued an order granting Walker’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The court found that the penalty phase of Walker’s trial violated his constitutional rights because he was not provided effective assistance of counsel, and that the California Supreme Court was unreasonable in its 2004 ruling denying Walker’s claims. With the death penalty off the table, Farella filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit on the Batson racial discrimination claim.

Walker was sentenced to death in 1980 by a jury in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County for the 1979 murder of Joseph Vasquez and wounding of two others in a liquor store holdup in San Jose. The death sentence was originally reversed by the California Supreme Court, but then reinstated after the 1986 election that changed the California Supreme Court’s composition. In 1989, lawyers at Farella, led at the time by Douglas Young, were appointed by the court to represent Walker in challenging his conviction and death sentence. 

Farella lawyers on the matter include Douglas Young and Tom Mayhew with assistance from Alex Reese, Elizabeth Dorsi, Hilary Krase, Erik Monek Anderson, and paralegal Tony Allen; and former colleagues Racheal Turner, David Ismay, David Phillips, Patrice Harper, and Chloe Kim. Nanci Clarence of Clarence, Dyer & Cohen served as co-counsel.

Since its inception, Farella Braun + Martel has maintained an active pro bono practice that includes death penalty habeas corpus cases. The firm does not limit the number of hours for which lawyers can receive credit for pro bono work, and associates are encouraged to further hone their advocacy and trial skills and serve the broader community by taking on pro bono opportunities.

Farella Braun + Martel is a leading Northern California law firm representing corporate and private clients in sophisticated business transactions and complex commercial, civil and criminal litigation. Clients seek our imaginative legal solutions and the dynamism and intellectual creativity of our lawyers. We are headquartered in San Francisco and maintain offices in the Napa Valley that are focused on the wine industry.

Cheryl Loof
Farella Braun + Martel LLP
415.954.4433 / [email protected]